MLB: Drive To Survive in a Competitive Market

Aaron E. Martinez / American-Statesman / USA TODAY NETWORK

No one asked me, but given the trends in attendance, the average age of MLB fans, and the fluctuations in ratings over the past few years, along with the dwindling page space and airtime given to baseball by mainstream media outlets relative to their coverage of other sports, it seems undeniable that baseball no longer holds the “America’s Pastime” title, but rather the considerably less catchy moniker: “America’s Third or Maybe Fourth Favorite Sport.” The battle for consumers’ time and attention wages on, and while baseball started in the pole position, it scraped the wall a few times and now sits a lap down.

The entertainment market is oversaturated. Viewers easily scroll through endless options and click away from any selection that doesn’t immediately spark joy. “The only game in town” marketing strategy simply no longer suffices. So again, while no one asked me, I’m here to offer some unsolicited advice to MLB on how to better sell their game and the characters, settings, and themes that make up its stories. In other words, I’d like to improve their drive to survive within a competitive market.

This article is the first of a three-part series. This edition will provide an overview of alternative forms of supplemental content the league might use to entice new viewers and the potential benefits such content yields. Part II will explore the specifics of how to make supplementary content effective, while Part III will shift the perspective to focus on marketing strategies for individual players at all levels of baseball.

[Extreme Russell Wilson Voice] FanGraphs Nation, Let’s Ride! (Consider this an example of how not to market yourself.)

When we think of MLB content and the media rights deals the league signs to sell its content, we naturally think of the on-field product. The actual games are what ESPN, Fox, and Turner Broadcasting agreed to pay 12 billion with a “b” dollars to exclusively air on their platforms over seven years starting in 2022. The deals also include the option for pre and post game shows during the playoffs and studio shows like Baseball Tonight, but mostly they want the games.

ESPN, Fox, and Turner have sewn themselves into the fabric of baseball broadcasting. They’ve stitched their logo into MLB’s underwear, so everyone knows they own those TV rights in case of a gym class locker room mixup. Nevertheless, as the way we watch television continues to evolve, and on-demand streaming occupies a larger and larger market share, those in the broadcast business see the value in sports as one of the few products still consumed live.

As we know, the national cable networks don’t broadcast every game for every team, but rather select a subset of games to feature. The other entities claiming broadcast rights are regional sports networks (RSNs) who negotiate those rights with individual teams. However, the RSN business model becomes more precarious by the day, leaving MLB needing to pivot to a temporary solution while they attempt to modernize how they broadcast games in the future.

Aside from the mainstay broadcast partners, others are seeking to grab a patch of market share in the sports domain. Apple TV+ began offering Friday Night Baseball in 2022 (it went really smoothly — no one took issue with it whatsoever), and now owns the exclusive rights to MLS. Amazon Prime took over Thursday Night Football, affording it the privilege of airing Colts/Broncos every single week for some reason (I’m hearing in my earpiece it wasn’t actually Colts/Broncos every week, it only felt like it). NBC ported parts of the Olympics over to Peacock. I have to subscribe to something called Fubo if I want to watch the Pac-12 Network, and I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Hulu has live sports.

The silence from one particular streaming service with respect to live sports is as deafening as the drumbeats that pulse through your speakers every time you open the app. Netflix, the flagship streamer, doesn’t offer Tuesday Night Tennis, or Water Sports Wednesday, or Saturday Morning Slamball. (Although, I would absolutely watch Saturday Morning Slamball.) That doesn’t mean they don’t see value in sports, but rather that they choose to pursue it in a different way.

Many on the internet have argued that reality shows such as The Bachelor, Project Runway, and Top Chef are sports, and I’ve long held that the reverse is also true: sports are reality TV. Netflix agrees with me, but they took it a step further and started making reality shows about the reality show that is sports. They said to themselves, “Sports are basically a reality show already, let’s just shove it into the same format as Selling Sunset and put it out as supplementary viewing.” (To be clear, I don’t sit-in on content brainstorming meetings at Netflix, but I assume this is how it went down.)

Thus, in March of 2019, Formula 1: Drive to Survive debuted on Netflix, highlighting the major storylines, characters, and settings from the 2018 season, and arriving just in time for the checkered flag to wave on the first race of the 2019 season. Around the same time, ESPN signed a deal to broadcast Formula 1 races for $5 million per year from 2019-2022. Starting in 2023, with three total seasons of Drive to Survive available on Netflix, ESPN won a bidding war to sign a new rights deal with F1, now paying a minimum of $75 million annually to carry races. Meanwhile, viewership has more than doubled, going from around half a million viewers per race in 2017 and 2018 to 1.2 million viewers per race in 2022. Attendance at U.S. races also doubled, leading F1 to add more U.S. races to the schedule this coming season. All-in-all, the show paid dividends for Liberty Media, the entity that owns Formula 1 and also happens to own the Atlanta Braves.

The bet on original sports content, rather than live sporting events, worked out for Netflix as well. Season 3 of Drive to Survive was the seventh-most watched show on the platform during its debut month, while season 4 of the series was the most watched show globally on Netflix a few days after its release (season 5 had the misfortune of dropping the same day as season 3 of Outer Banks, which put a stranglehold on the top spot, but it still checks in at 31st in popularity among TV offerings on the platform for 2023).

Netflix felt good enough about the show’s concept to produce a golf version of the series entitled Full Swing, which debuted this year. It seems like a huge missed opportunity to not just call it PGA: Drive to Survive, since y’know driving applies to golf too, but as ever, no one asked me. Coincidentally, MLB: Drive to Survive works nicely as well, and if they don’t want to end up as irrelevant as Thom Brennaman after Nick Castellanos drove a ball to deep left field, they should maybe consider a docu-series as an option.

(Netflix also made an iteration of the show that focuses on tennis and has a cycling edition in production, but I’m not as convinced I can make those work with my give-them-all-the-same-title joke, so we’re going to ignore them.)

F1 and Netflix experienced positive growth in all the ways MLB is currently shrinking. Obviously correlation isn’t causation, but according to a 2022 survey conducted by Morning Consult, 53% of U.S. F1 fans say Drive to Survive influenced their fandom, so this isn’t merely happenstance. Since MLB is already in the process of transitioning from the RSN model in terms of how it broadcasts the actual games (which will likely include a loss of revenue at least in the short-term while it navigates the best method for monetizing à la carte streaming), why not add a new media revenue stream by taking a page from the Netflix playbook and running with some original, narrative content? The payout for MLB would not include the doubled attendance and a 15-times spike to their media rights valuation enjoyed by F1 given the differences in circumstances surrounding the two sports, but more on that in Part II.

Drive to Survive isn’t the only type of sports docu-series designed to spark interest in a specific league or team. The HBO series Hard Knocks goes inside training camp for a different NFL team each year and has become a ceremonial start to the season for many NFL fans; it recently expanded to include an in-season spinoff as well.

Furthermore, near-real-time docu-series like Drive to Survive and Hard Knocks are only one type of complementary content among a whole field of options. A documentary need not exclusively focus on a professional league for the league to benefit. Last Chance U documents football and basketball at the junior college level, highlighting the positives these sports bring to the world even for non-star athletes and their families. The series is not a direct commercial for the NBA or the NFL, but it generates the kind of positive vibes around each sport that leagues benefit from as they attempt to counterbalance their poor track records on player safety, workplace misconduct, and systemic racism.

Of course, the classic approach to documentary storytelling takes on tales of yore, where the value-add lies in bringing to life scenes buried deep in the sport’s history that have previously been left either forgotten or untold. Baseball has this base fairly well covered (The Battered Bastards of Baseball and No No: a Dockumentary are two of my personal faves). In recent years though, the entertainment industry as a whole has figured out how much the general public likes getting punched in the feels by nostalgia. Since youth is wasted on the young, we like to go back and relive it as adults. Every mildly successful show from the ‘80s and ‘90s now gets a remake, reboot, or spinoff.

Following the trend, docuseries such as The Last Dance and dramas such as Winning Time bring fans back to the stories that hooked them on the sport in the first place. “The History of the Seattle Mariners by Secret Base” on YouTube lights up the part of my brain where the warm summer memories of childhood live, but imagine if they’d had the budget and access to hand Randy Johnson or Ken Griffey Jr. an iPad and let them react to old highlights. Johnson probably wouldn’t have said much, but think of the meme-potential in his facial expressions.

YouTube contains a cornucopia of effective baseball storytelling, which we’ll discuss more in Part II, but YouTube content is limited in its reach and production quality, so stories marketed from the platform have capped potential benefits much lower than content produced for the major TV networks and streaming services. Typically, YouTube consumers go to the platform in search of niche content specific to their interests, rather than shows marketed to the masses. A few series, such as Hot Ones, have transcended the platform and found their way into mainstream pop culture, but in general, content seeking to create new fans needs to go where the potential new fans exist, not where the sickos go to dive deeper on their existing fandom.

Documentaries aside, the NBA benefits from several of its active players hosting podcasts, among them The Draymond Green Show, The CJ McCollum Show, and The ETCs with Kevin Durant. Green has even been known to record a podcast immediately after playing in a Finals game. Imagine Kyle Schwarber and Bryce Harper hopping behind a mic right after Game 3 of the 2022 World Series to discuss what Harper whispered to Alec Bohm right before going deep against Lance McCullers Jr. On the NFL side, the weekly appearances by Aaron Rodgers on The Pat McAfee Show generate enough media buzz to keep attention firmly focused on the sport even during the offseason. Or if darkness retreats aren’t your thing, the Kelce brothers team up to host a podcast, named in homage to their hometown with a description dubbing them “Football’s funniest family duo.” (I appreciate the alliteration, but that’s a fairly bold claim given all the nepotism in the NFL — see also: Peyton and Eli Manning, Rob and Rex Ryan, Bill and Steve Belichick, etc.)

And to add to its catalog of behind-the-scenes sports content, Netflix plans to release a show this summer that zooms in on the role of NFL quarterbacks, in part by drawing on audio gathered during the 2022-23 season in which Patrick Mahomes, Kirk Cousins, and Marcus Mariota were all mic’d up for every single game. MLB has struggled through several attempts to generate mic’d up content that is compelling without generating cringe or safety concerns, but removing the live element and editing together the good stuff after the fact may be the winning formula. A full season recap of Mookie on the mic, or getting to listen in on catchers conversing with their pitchers between innings, or a series on the banter that occurs when runners reach first base? Sign me up.

But does the intrigue formed while watching a docu-series or listening to a podcast always translate to more fans watching games? Jody Avirgan of the Good Sport podcast says no. “I watch [Hard Knocks] every season. I love it. Full of stakes, full of storylines. But I gave up watching actual NFL football years ago, and no matter how good Hard Knocks is, I’m not finding my way back to the actual games.”

That outcome is certainly suboptimal. However, the show itself serves as a source of revenue, so people who only watch these shows, even if they never watch a game, still contribute to the bottom line. Moreover, it sends more people out into the world to talk about the sport with their friends and family and coworkers, which contributes to the type of pop culture FOMO that draws more people in. And maybe those non-game-watchers still buy and wear merch, or don’t watch during the regular season, but tune in for the playoffs, since they now have some idea of what’s going on. There are many levels of new fandom for MLB to aspire to here.

A particular level of F1 fandom that MLB aspires to improve upon is that of global fandom. On Good Sport, Avirgan interviews Jessica Smetana, a sports journalist and relatively new Formula 1 enthusiast about her journey to F1 fandom. Smetana counts the global nature of F1 as one of the appealing factors, “[T]eams being based in different countries and races being all over the world. It felt like I was simultaneously watching sports, but also maybe a mini travel documentary.”

MLB’s recent efforts to expand its global reach include games played in Australia, Japan, Mexico, and the UK, with more international games on the schedule this year in London and Mexico City, and a Paris game scheduled for 2025. When airing in the United States, Drive to Survive carries the advantage of introducing its audience to an entirely new sport. To seize upon a similar advantage, a baseball reality show needn’t air exclusively in North America, where most people already know about baseball. Instead the show could become a vehicle to reach new fans around the world.

During the WBC, we learned that roughly half of all Japanese households with a TV tuned in to watch Japan’s quarterfinal game against Italy, while 61% of households with a TV in Puerto Rico watched their team face off with the Dominican Republic. Japan, Puerto Rico and a host of other countries have their own popular professional leagues, but with that level of enthusiasm for the WBC, perhaps the thirst for baseball is not fully satiated.

One could make similar arguments for serving more MLB content to countries like the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Venezuela, but to truly replicate F1’s strategy, the move to be made is getting this type of content to places like the UK, Italy, Israel, and so on and so forth. Target countries with the existing kindling to ignite a firestorm of baseball fandom, but that would still benefit from a splash of lighter fluid to really get crackling, perhaps by starting with a Hard Knocks-esque telling of the national teams preparing for the WBC.

Last but not least among the potential benefits of non-game content, F1 experienced one important decrease in their numbers following their Drive to Survive glow up. The average age of a Formula 1 fan dropped from 36 in 2017 to 32 in 2023. As the average age of an MLB fan creeps uncomfortably close to the average life expectancy in the U.S., giving younger fans a show to binge watch with their friends after they catch up on the new season of Love is Blind feels like a worthwhile endeavor.

That’s all for Part I! Check back soon for Part II to read all about how to actually make a baseball docu-series and other types of complementary content work to attract new fans. In the meantime, feel free to use the comment section to brainstorm the best baseball player/reality show combo, e.g. Enrique Hernández on America’s Next Top Model or Max Scherzer on Beat Bobby Flay.

Kiri lives in the PNW while contributing part-time to FanGraphs and working full-time as a data scientist. She spent 5 years working as an analyst for multiple MLB organizations. You can find her on Twitter @technical_K0.

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Brian Southwellmember
1 year ago

Great article! Excited to read parts 2 and 3