Can MLB Increase Its Popularity By Producing A Crossover Sports Star?

There was once upon a time when the national pastime gobbled up all the headlines in the world of sports.

In the first half of the 20th century, boxing, horse racing and baseball were the three noteworthy sports leading the charge, with baseball wearing the throne as America’s #1 sport through the 1970s. By the time the 1980s hit, basketball and football were the premier sports in the U.S., which still persists today.

When it came to pointing out who were the biggest stars in all of sports, baseball used to occupy most of those athletes that the nation were familiar with, and whose stardom and play shined the brightest.

The 1900s gave us Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Cy Young. The 1910s had Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. The 1920s were ruled by Babe Ruth and Roger Hornsby. The 1930s saw Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove stand out. Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Stan Musial reigned in the 1940s. The “Golden Era” of Baseball in the 1950s were led by Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. The 1960s, when the sport was at its absolute apex, produced Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Frank Robinson, Bob Gibson and Roberto Clemente. The 1970s granted us Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Reggie Jackson, Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan.

In their respective eras, those guys were not only gigantic in their sport, but they were famous outside of it. For decades, the finest baseball players were some of the biggest stars in sports.

That’s not the case anymore, especially in today’s game, where star power is significantly lacking. Quite simply, baseball doesn’t have a crossover sports star that transcends the game.

If I told you to name the current biggest stars in American sports right now, names like Serena Williams, Tom Brady, LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Tiger Woods, Kevin Durant and Aaron Rodgers would be mentioned.

Expand the conversation globally, and the likes of Lionel Messi, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Cristiano Ronaldo and Novak Djokovic will enter the fray. There’s not a baseball player in sight, which is the mega dilemma Major League Baseball is facing at the moment. The league’s best players are just not recognizable enough for the everyday sports fan.

All of those athletes have elevated the status of their sports for years now, raising awareness of the game on a first or second name basis alone. They attract not just young people but young adults as well as older adults. Baseball is sorely missing that guy.

Superb players such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant, Jose Altuve and a host of others are central figures in the modern game. Unfortunately, none of them are household names, largely lacking a celebrity existence about them to raise the profile of the “slowest team sport on earth.”

Philadelphia Phillies Bryce Harper.  Photo Credit- Philly.com.

Former power sports agent and current vice chairman of the Detroit Pistons, Arn Tellem, summed up the difference between how other pro leagues embrace star power compared to MLB’s approach two years ago. “Baseball has always promoted the game,” Tellum said. “But it’s been more about the game and its history. And it’s been less about the individual players.”

Take Trout, the five-tool, advanced metrics-approving sensation who’s been baseball’s best player for much of this decade. The latest MLB odds have him as the clear favorite to win MVP as his performance on the field can’t be denied. However, for someone who is the best in their profession, he doesn’t have much of a social media following. The Los Angeles Angels’ star outfielder currently has 2.6 million Twitter followers compared to the best basketball player of this decade in LeBron James, who has 43.1 million followers. Trout wasn’t even in MLB’s top 10 in 2018 for the highest selling jersey sales and is basically unknowable to the average sports fan.

In this year’s ESPN’s World Fame 100, Trout, the highest paid player in U.S. team sports history, doesn’t even crack the top 100. The only baseball player that’s on the list is the magnetic Harper, the closest thing baseball has to a crossover star, who sits at the 99th spot. A matter of fact, international cricket had 11 athletes in the top 100.

Based on the Q Scores – a measure of the appeal, personality and recognition of celebrities or brands – for athletes last year, Trout only scored a 22. His score was on par with NBA reserve forward Kenneth Faried, who was traded last season, then was waived earlier in the year before signing with the Houston Rockets in January.

Trout is and has been all substance, but no style to go with it.

Nolan Arenado and Kris Bryant. Photo Credit- CBS Sports

The low-key superstar’s anonymity is much to his delight, but baseball should be on alert. It hurts the image of how the game is perceived by young fans who are trying to gravitate to the old-school sport that is being toppled by football, basketball and, on a global level, soccer.

ESPN conducted a poll between November 2016 and April 2017 of America’s 50 favorite professional athletes, surveying more than 6,000 sports fans in America from age 12 or older. In that poll, only three baseball players were spotted: Derek Jeter at No. 13 (who already retired), Babe Ruth at No. 30 (last played a game in 1935) and Pete Rose at No. 50 (last played in 1986).

That’s a major problem in baseball and will likely continue to be a sore spot for the game. Even with rule changes to make the game faster and more alluring for fans, that’s not going to fix the issue.

Baseball needs stars to carry the game: players that move the needle, vibrant personalities, game-changers, culture-shifters, must-see attractions and TV viewership boosters. That comes with better marketing, sure, but also players must step up and take more of an initiative in promoting the game themselves.

The Astros group of stars: Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman and Jose Altuve. Photo Credit- Sporting News.

When I think about baseball in the last 25 years, there were four astounding moments that truly transfixed the baseball universe and occupied the sports world’s collective consciousness. The 1998 home run chase between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds breaking the single-season home run record in 2001, Boston ending its 86-year World Series “curse” in 2004, and the Chicago Cubs ending their own 108-year drought in 2016.

Major League Baseball plainly needs more of those captivating moments on a season-to-season basis, as the NBA and NFL seem to produce every year. Having transcendent stars plays a large part in that, particularly ones that appeal to the mass audience.

The major players running the sport have to wonder how can they raise the credibility, exposure, relevance and acclaim of the league if it is without a “face of the league” or several faces carrying the way?

Baseball used to never have that obstacle, but halfway through this season, it’s still searching for solutions.

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