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3 Marketing Lessons From Major League Baseball

I was 8 years old when the Pittsburgh Pirates won the World Series in 1979. In addition to being ecstatic that my hometown heroes won the pennant, I was equally fascinated by the Pirate Parrot mascot, Sister Sledge’s We Are Family song that became the team’s official championship anthem, and the team’s sponsorship support from household names like Heinz.

While I was never a great athlete, decades later I have been able to parlay my passion for sports into a career in helping brands sponsor, activate and measure sponsorship investments with organizations like Major League Baseball. I can’t say that it has always been easy. Historically, working with an age-old institution like MLB has been challenging, but the times, they are a-changin’—and not just within the world of sports. Today, many established organizations are facing the challenge of adapting old ways of doing business to the modern world and the people who live in it.

When it comes to forging new partnerships, building brand awareness, and driving big business and sales objectives, organizations like MLB have realized that rethinking long-held business practices isn’t just smart. It’s crucial. Here are three marketing lessons inspired by MLB’s modern-day marketing turnaround.

1. Look at your leadership. Few forces exert more influence over a business than the people who run it. Leaders have the power to inspire change and, in all too many cases, stifle it. In a world that is changing faster than ever, the value of leaders eager to both fearlessly and tactfully adapt to the times is immeasurable.

Newly elected MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred is a shining example of this. When Manfred succeeded Bud Selig as commissioner in January, he inherited an organization with some archaic structures and processes. Though Manfred had been working with MLB since 1987, stepping into a new role has undoubtedly enabled him to help shape a smarter and more strategic MLB.

Now more than ever, leaders new and tenured have to be willing to ask hard questions geared toward change. How are our customers and partners evolving? How are we, as an organization, following suit? Where can we simplify our processes? In the few months since Manfred has assumed his new role, he has shown that searching for new answers is a significant move for an old organization.

2. Break down structural barriers. Longstanding business structures and processes are one of the ripest areas for simplification. 

Prior to Manfred adopting the role of commissioner, MLB Properties, baseball’s offline commercial organization; Major League Baseball Advanced Media, baseball’s Internet and digital division; and MLB TV Network all functioned fairly autonomously. Manfred reshaped MLB’s front office and effectively deconstructed what had been a fairly siloed organization.

Why is this significant to the greater marketing industry? If you’re not perceived as easy to work with today, people are likely to consider spending their money elsewhere. All organizations need to identify where established ways of doing business might be making it less appealing for people—be it business partners or customers—to spend money with them.

3. Embrace new technologies. New technologies give brands endless opportunities to connect with and engage people. For organizations that have been around for a while, few things act as more effective change agents.

In addition to making MLB more friendly to work with, Manfred and his team are attempting to revolutionize the game with new technologies like Replay, Pitch FX and Statcast. Also, 2015 will be the first year of a 100% digital All-Star ballot, allowing fans more ways in more places to engage with one of MLB’s jewel platforms. As a result, MLB is presenting bigger and better opportunities for brands and fans to get more engaged with the game.

Technology allows brands to deliver everything from exciting content to data. It also allows customers to relish deeper, more engaging experiences. For companies that need a modern makeover, there has never been a better time to tap into technology’s endless opportunities. Whether young or old, organizations must be willing to constantly reimagine and reinvent themselves, so swing for the fences like MLB. 


Adam Lippard is executive vice president of global sports and entertainment consulting at New Berlin, Wisc.-based GMR Marketing, a global marketing agency that specializes in sports.