Baseball’s media strategy: ripoff magazine subscriptions?
Several weeks after casting my dutiful homer “Vote For Pablo” to make the NL All-Star Team, I received an E-mail invitation from Major League Baseball inviting me to subscribe to MLB Insiders Club. Baseball has always had backwards-looking marketing overly reliant on its heritage, but debuting a dubiously Official Magazine in the era of social networking and 24/7 sports news shows baseball’s marketing at its worst.
Baseball-dedicated magazines have been around since time immemorial and – like every other magazine segment – they aren’t exactly killing it these days. Baseball Digest, founded in 1942, recently downshifted to an 8x schedule from monthly, while the baseball-heavy Sporting News showed a 39% decline in ad pages for the first half of 2009. The biggest players in sports magazines, Sports Illustrated and ESPN: The Magazine, saw ad pages down 28% and 31% respectively in Q1 2009. (Curiously SI for Kids is one of only 11 magazinesthat showed an ad page increase so far this year.)
MLB Insiders Club would need to bring something different to the table in order to succeed and what it promises is attractive: “Behind The Scenes looks into the clubhouse and front office of MLB teams” and “MLB Insiders Club Fantasy League Tips!” First off, it’s surprising to hear that a major league would directly support fantasy leagues. It would be a lucrative opportunity for a major sport league to get involved in fantasy leagues, but it’s also tantamount to supporting gambling – which has a history, especially in baseball, of being the worst crime a player or manager can commit. One wonders if the MLB Powers That Be is aware that an official licensed product of this tacit endorsement.
As for “Behind The Scenes,” a review on Baseball Reflection reveals that the magazine practically begs for user-generated content. The official license may get some access, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee more or better; the premiere issue features an interview with Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane, but he’s probably MLB’s most open GM, frequently giving long interviews to blogs like Athletics Nation. And if UGC is the majority of content, you can be pretty sure the fans mailing it in don’t have any special access.
MLB Insiders Club is published by North American Media Group, a company that specializes in niche media with a few key licenses, including the Professional Golf Association and History Channel. In addition to magazines, it also pumps out expensive coffee table books. So for $24/year, you get some indeterminate number of baseball magazines (they don’t say whether its monthly or what) and the opportunity to buy more books (or as the come-on says “Preview Great Books and DVD’s”). Ouch.
Baseball’s marketing and media sophistication continue to be disappointing and well behind its rivals for attention in the NBA and NFL. Few of MLB’s teams or players are involved in social networking, while Shaquille O’Neal is the world’s ninth most-followed twitterer (as of this writing) and the NFL has so many tweeters that it had to conjure a “No tweeting during games” policy. When these other leagues and their team are putting together their communications strategies, they are way past trying to sell magazines to their best customers. With overall attendance down nearly 6% so far this year, MLB needs to do something to make itself more compelling – more necessary – to its fans. A clever coordinated social networking policy would be an inexpensive, low-risk way to go, especially in light of the vitality of fantasy baseball – one of the original pre-Internet social networks.
More on point: yesterday the Giants E-mailed me an offer for $5 tickets for next week’s Pirates series for my “vote for Pablo.” Now that’s something I can use.