How MLB’s Digital Strategy is Changing the Game

This week, I will look at how Major League Baseball’s digital strategy is helping it appeal to a new generation of fans. By traditional measures, baseball appears to be decreasing in popularity, especially among the younger demographic, with a large number of TV viewers over 55 years old and Little League participation rates falling. However, this does not take into account the activity occurring on digital platforms.

MLBAM-Transmission-Operations-CenterMajor League Baseball has an elaborate digital strategy to attract new, younger fans who may not have the time, patience, or attention span to sit down and watch a game. MLB Advanced Media (MLBAM) runs MLB’s digital efforts including social media, streaming (MLB.TV), apps (At Bat), real time statistics (Statcast), and ticket sales. The company was launched in 2000 as a partnership between team owners, with the primary purpose of running team websites and MLB.com. Over time, they have expanded to become a multimedia empire, with Forbes labeling it “the biggest media company you’ve never heard of.” Besides baseball, MLBAM provides digital services to the NHL and PGA and their servers power streaming for WatchESPN, HBO Now, and March Madness on CBS. They stream more live video than any other company, with revenues approaching $1 billion.

mlb-at-bat-2015-update.pngMLB.TV and and At Bat allow fans to follow their favorite team on the go and supplement their game-viewing experience with real-time statistics and analysis. MLB.TV is a subscription service that allows games to be broadcast on over 400 devices, including iOS and Android. It is great for fans, such as college students, who do not live in a team’s home market but want to watch the games. During the season, it is accessed over 2 million times a day. MLB At Bat is a mobile app which provides a wealth of information including news, statistics, pitch by pitch data, and video highlights.  It has been the highest grossing sports app in the Apple App Store every year since its release in 2008, due to a subscription option that provides greater access to this content. The average user is 30 years old, with two-thirds using the app daily.

Being a sports fan is an inherently social experience, providing a sense of belonging and allowing people to be part of something larger than themselves.  Since watching games with others may be less common than the past, social media can help fulfill this desire, by giving fans a voice and allowing them to interact with other passionate fans. This is why many teams focus their social efforts on creating a community and engaging with fans, through platforms such as Twitter and Snapchat, rather than purely for marketing purposes. According to social analytics firm Klear, the most active group of fans on social media for many baseball teams ranges from ages 18 to 24, which shows that MLB is making progress in their efforts to target a younger audience.

MLB and its teams have an active presence on Twitter. The content of their tweets has become more informal over time, with less facts and more opinion, in an attempt to relate more with the fans. They partnered with Twitter for Moments during the playoffs, to allow fans to follow the game, through a series of curated tweets. Teams like the Mets use Periscope to share exclusive content such as batting practice before games. Earlier this year, MLB began a partnership with Snapchat, with the introduction of MLB Wednesdays. This is a Live Story available to all users of the app which shows games from the perspective of fans and players, as well as behind-the-scenes footage inside the clubhouses and dugouts filmed by the league’s social media team. In October, Snapchat introduced dynamic Geofilters, in partnership with STATS, a sports technology and data company, which overlays the current score and other statistics on content captured inside the stadium. During the World Series, there were special Live Stories for each game, with highlights from the perspective of fans both at the stadium and elsewhere, which included these new Geofilters.

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The experience of feeling like you are at the game shows the potential of virtual reality. Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as a platform to share experiences as if you were there, including sporting events. You could be sitting on your couch at home, but think you are behind home plate at a baseball game. Virtual reality can also change how players train. For example, EON Sports VR’s Project OPS, which has been backed by former player Jason Giambi, allows batters to simulate game situations and improve their ability to hit certain pitches.

Despite being the oldest major American sport, baseball has found a way to remain relevant, with its innovative digital initiatives successfully engaging a younger generation of fans, which it hopes to continue going forward.

12 comments

  1. Nice post! A really enlightening look at the social media effort of Major League Baseball. The Gameday tab of the MLB app is very realistic. I’m not a huge baseball fan (although I am a Twins fan at heart!) but I find the design very aesthetically appealing. It’s interesting that the Tweets have become more opinion-based over time – I wonder if that is evidence of fans that are less interested in the quantitative statistics behind the sport. Perhaps fans want to hear more about their team and its players and less about RBI or AVG.

    Virtual reality and its role in sports is going to be an interesting evolution. I’m curious as to if VR replaces the experience of going to the stadium, participating in the wave, and buying some peanuts and cracker jacks.

  2. Interesting post. Baseball has definitely decreased in popularity over the years. As a lifelong baseball fan, it’s tough to see the decrease in popularity. However, I think the MLB is taking the right approach by creating a “multimedia empire”. I feel that baseball is a bit of an easier sport for implementing a solid digital strategy due to the slow nature of the game and all of the statistics that are involved. Personally, I love reading and interacting with social media during sporting events. It seems to be what most millennials enjoy, so I think other sports leagues will follow suit by expanding their digital presence.

  3. This was a fantastic post. I’m a huge fan of baseball and, like you said, I’ve seen a steady decline in the following of baseball. I’ve also traditionally thought of baseball as an old-fashioned game and one that has typically resisted innovation. I remember how much resistance there was to the introduction of instant replay. Tools such as the ones you talk about here work well with the community and social aspects of the sport, without detracting too much from the sport’s culture. The ability to interact with the game and with others following the game is an excellent application of digital strategy to a hugely popular sport.

  4. Wow, I had no idea how large and powerful MLB Advanced Media is. I didn’t even know that the organization even existed. This makes sense though since all the team websites are setup pretty much the same and look fairly similar. Its really interesting how they’re involved with HBO and March Madness too. MLB is definitely an organization that needs to use social media and technology to keep fans engaged. Its a long season and sometimes that can get boring for fans. It seems like MLB is doing a good job though with MLB.tv and MLB At Bat. It seems that MLB At Bat has been a big success since it was launched in 2008. The fact that MLB is working with Twitter and Snapchat is also a positive sign. These platforms are where young people are and that is who MLB needs to target. I think the individual teams to a pretty good job as well. I follow the Red Sox and they are constantly posting on FB and Twitter even during the off season.

  5. Awesome post! I have been a fan fan of baseball since grades school and year after year I always wish I could make to more games. Apps like ones you mentioned above help me keep up with my favorite team even when I now live so far away from home. I think the snapchat game day stories are an awesome way for the MLB to attract a younger crowd. They stories serve as both a highlight real and a virtual reality of the fan experience. I imagine the MLB will only become better and better at staying on top of the latest social media trends, especially in comparison to other sports leagues.

  6. Great post! I loved the idea of the new snapchat filters automatically updating with the game scores at stadiums- it makes watching the games for future generations more engaging and allows their friends to participate in the game remotely. I hadn’t even thought about the way players could use VR while practicing, but that seems like an ideal that would help players with the change in atmosphere from a college or minor league stadium to a major league stadium feel. I’ll definitely be checking out MLB Wednesdays in the future! Thanks for all the new info!

  7. Going off your first paragraph, I almost wonder if the rise of social media has in any significant way contributed to baseball’s waning popularity. As the guy from Digitas mentioned, social media users have an inherently short attention span because of all the content that’s thrown their way, so the slow pace and 162 games of baseball are not really conducive to success with millennials. At the same time too, baseball doesn’t really have any household names like Lebron or Tom Brady that dominate social media and add excitement and hype to the sport. I think it’s a smart move on the MLB’s part to target social media, given that the millennials are the ones who seem to be losing interest in the sport. I actually had MLB TV for 2 seasons and was a huge fan of it, but once the Phillies became irrelevant I couldn’t justify spending the $100+ on it just to watch them play like garbage. The At Bat app is nice since it instantly gives me the box score of the Phils game that day, which helps me follow my underperforming team with as minimal effort as possible. I also am a big fan of MLB Wednesdays, and I would always look through those Snap stories even if I had zero interest in the matchup. They serve as a good reminder that there are still a ton of passionate baseball fans out there.

  8. Fantastic post. I would agree that the way we are consuming sporting events is becoming more dynamic. The virtual component is very interesting. Can you imagine being immersed in a sporting event in the comfort of your own home. The data you gathered also reinforces the changes in consumption patterns for millennials and generation z. Engaging with multiple screens and multiple sources of information is the future. Baseball is the perfect sport to leverage high statistical analysis. Thank you for this post.

  9. Great post!!! I think this is an interesting topic. I am in a Sports Marketing class with the GM of Fenway Sports Group. He has mentioned, as of recently, that baseball is a unique market to advertise to due to the characteristics of the fan base. Baseball usually attracts an older fan base, making movements into digital more difficult. I like this post because it sheds light on unique approaches to marketing that many other markets can learn from! I personally love baseball so I am glad they are making strides in this direction!

  10. Interesting post. I have to see that I have experienced first hand how the MLB is turing towards social media to keep people interested in the sport. As a baseball fan from Wisconsin I would always turn on a Brewers game, especially if I was using my computer to do some work/email. However, once I was in Boston there was no way to watch the games on regular TV. Social media became the perfect opportunity for me to keep up with games, or at least read the post-game statistics. I do love baseball, but understand it can be seen as a “slow” or “boring” sport (especially) for the younger generations. I think as social media becomes a huge media for the MLB to utilize, younger generation will have an interest in the sport of baseball.

  11. Nice post, Max — very detailed and visually appealing! I had no idea about MLBAM, it’s so interesting that so much content can be provided and most of us don’t know by whom.

  12. […] that interested us, which for me included baseball and analytics. For example, I looked at how MLB’s innovative digital strategy is helping them engage with a younger generation of […]

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