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Believe it or not, there’s something MLB can learn from the NHL in regards to marketing

Baseball doesn’t realize how good they have it. Their players are so marketable and it doesn’t seem like they care. Major League Baseball continues to flub the easy play.

Coming from the hockey industry, marketable players are rare. Players with personality even more so. Sure, hockey showcases some player’s personality and their creativity, but, by-and-large it’s nothing like what’s available to baseball.

It is not that hockey players are not marketable, rather it is far more difficult for NHL players to be identifiable, to show their individuality. The equipment obscures our vision, plus the speed of the game makes television close ups difficult. And goaltenders…that damn mask… if players are difficult than goaltenders are near impossible to identify. If we as consumers cannot recognize players than their marketing value is extremely limited.

Baseball is different. The pace of play is slower. Television allows for close ups throughout the game. We can identify Justin Smoak, Donaldson, Martin and Pillar. Sure, many of us can easily identify Auston Matthews, Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid but further down any player list, we’d be left guessing if not for a name bar.

Most of us could easily identify the Jays starting lineup, same goes for the Yankees and Red Sox. Heck we could all probably do pretty decent at identifying a large portion of the top players in the league. Have a hard time believing we could say the same about hockey.

From personal experience, hockey equipment has resulted in some memorable ‘DOH’ moments. Without going too much into the story – two NHL vets were mixed up, to their face, based solely on their helmet visor combination. As an insider, this should never happen but it does because players are not easily identifiable at quick glance.

Baseball will most likely not experience this. The game is slower, allowing for an extra second of thought before putting a foot in our mouth.

Baseball also has greater opportunity for players to express themselves through their choice of equipment, rituals or whatever the heck they want – until recently. Zobrist wants to wear all black cleats, go for it! Clevinger wants some personal flowers on his cleats, love it! Willson Contreras wears the Venezuelan flag as an arm sleeve, more power to ya!

There are limited avenues for expression in baseball; players are becoming creative. Cleats and gloves are common avenues to express a player’s personality – Lourdes Gurriel Jr’s red and blue mitt is a beauty. Undershirts and sleeves are beginning to see random colours pop up. This after we were blessed with the artistic eye black of Brett Lawrie – kinda miss that batman thing, like in the I hated it but miss it now that it’s gone sorta way.

Hockey has even less avenues for expression. Tinted visors work, but mostly they make you the brunt of a joke. If you really want to find personality in hockey just look at the ‘tendy. Going to put it out there: 1) who remembers Felix Potvin’s mask? 2) who had a poster of it? And 3) could you honestly pick Potvin out of a lineup if given the chance?

We’re talking decades later and Potvin still holds relevance, he is still marketable. Yet I have no clue what the man looks like. It doesn’t matter because we identify with that mask, his personality shone through. I’m not a Leafs fan, but I am a Potvin fan. It is solely because Potvin was provided an outlet for expression and, as an impressionable youth, I connected with this.

Hockey gets it – sorta. They allow for this type of expression because they understand the marketing hurdles the sport must overcome. Connecting with youth is essential to the sport’s long-term viability. Baseball doesn’t seem to get this – MLB is staring right at the mouth of the gift horse, wondering how to further engage today’s youth when the answer seems to be what they are currently cracking down on.

Maybe Manfred should give Bettman a call and ask what the NHL is doing. The NHL is allowing for freedom of expression, however they do so by dictating the avenues players can go. At the end of the day though the NHL allows it, MLB is attempting to restrict it completely.

Hockey is allowing for expression through player’s sticks and skates. Baseball’s equivalent would be bat and cleats. Sticks and bats are great but why not cleats? Especially if Kris Letang can order gold skates from Graf – not a shade of gold, no like shimmering gold skates. Letang only wore them in practice, so we can assume they were only to have fun with his teammates but the skates were completely legit and ready for NHL ice. Letang used the skates to express himself, to have fun, and it would have connected with the youth if he wore them in a game. There is no difference between Letang’s skates and the cleats in question today, other than the freedom of choice being given to the player rather than reserved by the league.

The NHL is not perfect. They are eons behind MLB in many aspects of engagement. Thing is, in this instance, the NHL may be closer to perfect than the MLB ever will be. The NHL seems to be overcoming marketing hurdles while the MLB is, for whatever reason, creating their own. Manfred and Co. need to wake up, otherwise they will further lose out on engaging with the youth market in ways the NHL is able to, albeit possibly unknowingly.

  • Abogilo

    While I agree with you that players should be allowed to express themselves, I wonder if that is a minority opinion for the baseball audience.

    I hear/read a lot of complaining about bat flips and on field celebrations.
    We still see coded language when reading main steam analysis of players and prospects (“gritty” white guys, and minority players who “coast on their natural talent”).

    On top of that, MLB has always put a premium on preserving the prestige of the game of old – even in the face of hazing and throwing a 100 MPH projectile at someone head. I would guess by its success, that their are large groups of people who support that.

    Perhaps there is just more money to be extracted from wallets by making baseball a place where old men can yell at kids to stay off their lawns, and young men can be taught to do so?

      • Stieb175

        People who don’t want to see players enjoy themselves on the field are fans I don’t care for. You want energy on the field with players and off the field by fans. Players can respect the game and have fun with it. It’s not that hard to do both.

    • Barry

      I’m not sure I’m grasping how the NHL is an example of player expression appealing to youth. The article suggests that the avenues for expression are very limited, and frankly, I don’t see a lot of it when I watch a hockey game.

      But beyond that, I have wondered for a long time whether we fret too much about “appealing to youth.” And by “a long time,” I mean decades.

      For as long as I can recall, baseball has been one of the sports that appeals to an older demographic. And people have said that that will hurt it in the long run. But the “hurt” is always in the future — we never get there.

      Granted, it seems logical: if you don’t appeal to the youth, the young people aren’t going to take to your sport when they’re older. But that logic hasn’t played out.

      I don’t mean to sound dismissive — I do think greater expression is / would be a good thing, and even if I’m one of the crusty old men who irrationally rolls his eyes when he sees a player unable to wear his hat properly, at least I recognize that I have dinosaur views of hat-wearing and that such views should die. I’m just not totally convinced that the need is as great as some feel it is.

      • Barry

        Sorry, my post was meant to be a general reply to the article, not to a user’s comment. My opinion is thus compromised by the revelation that I am incapable of using comment-section buttons properly.

  • DAKINS

    Potvin’s mask is memorable because it was fucking incredible. You’re damn right I had multiple posters of him on my walls growing up.

    As a kid, I not only loved a player because they were good at the sport, but because they looked cool doing it.

    Let the players show off their personalities, it brings in younger fans.

  • The Humungus

    “Especially if Kris Letang can order gold skates from Graf – not a shade of gold, no like shimmering gold skates. Letang only wore them in practice . . ”

    Of course he only wore them in practice. If he wore them in a game, the wise old custodians of hockey would’ve had a field day.

    Hockey is just as bullshit as baseball in all of this. It’s why the Staal’s were “Good Canadian Kids” and Sean Avery was a “selfish asshole”.