MLB: Surviving and Thriving

Max Verstappen
Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Previously on MLB:Drive to Survive, the first part of this three-part series on growing engagement with the sport via content beyond live games: we enumerated a few of the different types of supplementary media the league and teams might use to awaken interest in dormant fans and highlighted the potential benefits of doing so based on what has worked well for other sports. Since executing a game plan is just as important as the game plan itself, here in Part II, the conversation will shift to what makes supporting content effective.

For every individual, different aspects of sports resonate and keep them returning game after game. In a 2022 Ted Talk, Kate Fagan argued that the many things that give sports their gravity organize themselves into one of two categories: stakes and storylines. “This is what burns at the center of sports. In the Olympics, we have all agreed: a gold medal matters. Same with the World Cup. And now paired with these agreed-upon stakes, we also have even deeper storytelling. Which is how we end up teary-eyed after a three-and-a-half minute NBC vignette about a Romanian gymnast.”

Content designed to drive interest in a sport needs to tell a story and emphasize the stakes. Compelling stories contain developed and dynamic characters, several coats of conflict, and settings with character arcs of their own. Good stories are crafted with precision; they make us feel, contain universal truths, teach us things we didn’t know and didn’t realize we were missing. They meet us where we are.

All of the above exist in the game of baseball, but new fans may struggle to notice when watching a game for the first time. That’s where complementary content comes in.

Revisiting the Good Sport podcast, referenced in Part I, sports journalist Jessica Smetana detailed her journey to F1 fandom via Drive to Survive. “It’s still a little surreal because I’ve always liked the same sports since I was five years old. You know, football, basketball, hockey, baseball, soccer, tennis. That’s pretty much it.”

The podcast’s host, Jody Avirgan, noticed a familiar pattern to Smetana’s story: “The sports we watch, they’re often the sports that are with us as kids. We played basketball growing up or we went to a game with a parent and then boom, we are adults and we are diehard NBA fans.” Smetana isn’t alone. As Daniel Wann, a psychologist who studies sports fandom at Murray State University, said in an interview with The Atlantic, “The best predictor of being a sports fan as an adult is having played that or another sport as a child.” Yet F1 managed to capture tens if not hundreds of thousands of new adult fans that no childhood connection to the sport.

It’s not just that Drive to Survive exists; it’s that the show tells stories and tells them well. Though the first two articles of this series focus heavily on the show and similar docu-series, it’s only because they provide examples of the critical components of storytelling and the levels of support, access, and exposure needed to reach new fans. I’m not arguing for MLB to produce a carbon copy of these existing works, but rather that the league take the components and make them their own.

It doesn’t need to be a docu-series, and it doesn’t need to be on Netflix; it doesn’t even need to be video. It just needs to be a good story. As the famous saying goes, “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.” Why? Because no matter how you go about it, you’re always eating a Reese’s. It’s a carefully curated product with a coordinated cadre of ingredients, calibrated to the correct quantity. (Though not the most delicious way to eat a Reese’s, my favorite trick is popping out the peanut butter center, yielding a halo of crunchy chocolate in its wake.)

So what are the chocolate, peanut butter, and vegetable oil of a good story? Characters, tension, and a little bit of delicious, fatty fluff to bring it all together.

Spencer Hall, Smetana’s co-host on their F1 podcast, described how Drive to Survive incorporated these crucial ingredients: “It did what I think every sort of great form of storytelling does, which is it focused on characters more so than the outcomes. They didn’t have access to the best teams, but they made drama out of who they could talk to. And it just so happens, if you do that and combine it with cars that go 200 miles [per] hour and can drive on the top of the Monte Carlo tunnel, that’s a pretty compelling product.”

Baseball certainly has characters fueling drama. Its version of cars topping 200 mph is pitchers pumping baseballs 100-plus mph and hitters cranking those same balls even harder, forcing defenders to endanger their bodies in the act of fielding. MLB hasn’t made it to Monte Carlo, but it does take place in stadiums enriched by ocean vistas, green monsters, and Fernando Rodney hiding in the trees.

Avirgan pointed out that the details highlighted by Hall are “the kind of factoid you might not pick up on if you just tuned in to watch a race; you might only see cars going round and round and flip the channel. But if you’ve seen Drive to Survive, you understand what you’re seeing. You have some backstory. They’ve translated the sport for you and walked you right up to the edge of real-life fandom.” In a matter of hours, an aspiring fan can get fully caught up on all the lore within the league’s universe.

During the first season alone, viewers learn how a handful of drivers went from teenage dreams to dark horse contention and get the backstory on rivalries not only between teams but also within. At one point, Kevin Magnussen offers Nico Hulkenberg an unappetizing snack suggestion like the world’s least helpful Pinterest board, all during a live interview on Danish television. Meanwhile, the show introduces the array of race tracks, many of which feel more like locations for destination weddings than venues for a corporate sporting event. Crucially, the series also seizes upon the opportunity to educate newcomers on the technical intricacies of the sport, but in such a seamless way that they don’t feel spoken down to.

As Hall noted, “There’s a lot of teaching you how to watch a race involved in Drive to Survive; if you’d never watched a race before, you can pick out the cruxes, you can pick out the points of trauma. Like, our tires aren’t working right. Like the driver is sick, right? It’s hot, it’s cold, it’s rainy, whatever. You could pick out a real basic how-to-watch from just watching Drive to Survive.” Other sports have taken a more targeted approach to education, creating broadcasts specifically geared toward educating and enticing children. The NFL has aired three games on Nickelodeon, complete with slime graphics in the endzones, and for the past two seasons has aired NFL Slimetime, a weekly highlight show that’s basically Sportscenter meets All That. Likewise, ESPN took advantage of its Disney ties to air a live-animated NHL game in the style of Big City Greens.

While the flashy approach works for kids, Hall finds it crucial to Drive to Survive’s effectiveness that they kept it subtle. “They need to think like a video game designer. They need to go, ‘How do I teach you how to press A, press B, and to uh, look around with the joystick,’ right? Without really being overt about it.”

Baseball suffers from the bitterness generated in fans that feel nerds have taken over the sport and did so in an abrasive know-it-all fashion. Nevertheless, the sport isn’t getting any simpler, and the associated stats and jargon build a high barrier to entry. Some individual broadcasts sprinkle in statistical nuggets (as I write, I’m listening to Arizona’s broadcast explain hard-hit rate). ESPN periodically simulcasts a Statcast Edition of their broadcast, which attempts to educate the analytically curious and cater to the data diehards. But it’s safe to say there’s no unified curriculum, and without one, statistical concepts are easily misrepresented and misinterpreted. An entertainment product provides a palatable opportunity to bust myths, ease analytical anxiety, and soften the landing as newcomers parachute into the sport.

All fandoms require a point of entry, and typically sports fandoms come with a mentor to coax us through the early phases. Without a parent to guide us through the early stages, adults need a different form of mentorship. In the case of F1, Drive to Survive provided that for a North American audience without many other resources. An MLB Drive to Survive, though, could serve as a life preserver in a tempest sea of options. Though I grew up around the sport of baseball, I didn’t start watching MLB until I reached my 20s and moved to Baltimore for grad school in 2012. Previously, I hadn’t lived near an MLB team and didn’t have an efficient way of catching up on the lore the way fans of Formula 1 do now. So I dove straight into the deep end: watching daily, attending games, finding baseball people to follow on Twitter, reading articles all day during my summer internship, and later discovering a myriad of podcasts. It took time that not every potential fan is willing to devote.

Even with all of that, and already knowing the mechanics of the sport, I still feel like it took a couple of seasons before I felt knowledgeable about professional baseball. Which is not to say I didn’t enjoy baseball throughout the process, but I did need to know some players and context before I really began to care. I needed to hear quotes about amusement park rides from Buck Showalter, and watch J.J. Hardy play his steady brand of defense, and soak up the ambiance of Camden Yards, and marvel at the ability of Adam Jones to blow bubbles while scaling the centerfield wall, and learn about top draft pick Manny Machado’s rapid ascent through the minors and experience the thrill of his debut. I needed stories.

In a recent podcast discussion about the first-round matchups in the NBA playoffs, ESPN analysts Bomani Jones and Domonique Foxworth worked through what makes them care about some series more than others. Jones posited that the NBA has “tried to turn this into an action movie above all else. Right? Lots of explosions. Their whole thing is points. People want points. Points. Points. Points. So crashes, explosions, pow, pow, pow.” But he believes there’s more nuance — that fans care about both style and substance. “People don’t enjoy sports because it’s an action movie. They enjoy it because it’s a drama.”

Foxworth built on that idea with the Sacramento Kings in mind. The Kings’ last playoff appearance came in 2006; since then they’ve been a double feature of anonymous and irrelevant. A playoff berth this year earned them some relevance, but they remain largely anonymous. For Foxworth, “[The NBA is] a character drama, and you’ve gotta know the characters.” We see a similar effect in baseball with the Rays, who churn their roster so continuously that each postseason appearance turns up a new cast of characters. As he puts it: “The characters matter, and it’s not necessarily that they have to be super famous, but they have to have something about them that’s distinctive. Because otherwise it doesn’t matter.” He further contended that the Kings aren’t distinguishable. “We just meeting them. Y’all just got added in on season 4. You’re an introductory character. You gonna die in the first scene.” And while it’s true that the nature of the playoffs demand that someone take the Drew Barrymore role in Scream, even Casey Becker got some character development before she ruined that batch of popcorn.

Football, as much as just about any sport, puts the action front and center, but it doesn’t market itself as strictly an action movie. I watched all five episodes of the most recent season of Hard Knocks as part of my “research” for this piece and came away shocked to find myself emotionally invested in the Lions despite going into the show with zero ties to Detroit and a general distaste for head coach Dan Campbell.

As the show aired, Campbell became a folk hero. Social media lit up in support of a man with a personal vendetta against kneecaps. He generally presents with the vibe of a man who snorted a line of Bucked Up pre-workout, chopped down an aged oak tree with no power tools, whittled the trunk into a lance, and used it for a quick round of dirt bike jousting — all of which is a level of macho sports bravado that’s a bit much for me. In the first episode of Hard Knocks, he delivers a motivational speech to the team with similar gusto, but something else about it struck me: He seems genuinely overcome with raw emotion. Typically, tough guy showmanship masks true emotion, but Campbell used it to display earnest vulnerability. Call me a Campbell convert.

Later in the episode, running back Jamaal Williams breaks down the huddle to wrap up the first day of camp. As I watch, I’m sure another overwrought motivational speech is coming, and it does. But while I believe the passion behind Williams’ words, that’s not the part that touched me. It was this specific line:

“If you gonna piss like a puppy, stay on the porch and let the big dogs eat.”

As a writer, I’m a sucker for a metaphor. He could have said, “It’s time to grow up,” or “We need to hit that next level,” but no. He hit us with the puppy piss line, and it worked so much better. I love him for that.

We all form attachments to characters and stories and places based on our individual experiences and preferences. I know some folks loved Campbell’s knee-cap-biting energy from the jump. Maybe someone else latched onto the story about David Blough and his wife Melissa González, an Olympic runner. Others might draw energy from the offensive and defensive coordinators trash-talking one another nonstop during intrasquad scrimmages. What’s important is having something to latch onto. I thought I was apathetic to the action presented by the lowly Lions on the field. It turns out I just needed to hear their stories.

Plenty of people do incredible work telling baseball’s stories — everyone on this website, for example. Even data enthusiasts are using data to tell a story. Looking at the video format, there exist a ton of great YouTubers producing video essays: Secret Base, Foolish Baseball, Jomboy, Baseball Doesn’t Exist, Sport Storm, Stark Raving Sports, Baseball Historian, etc., etc., etc. Players such as Julio Rodríguez and Mookie Betts post behind-the-scenes looks into their training and daily routines, or stream on Twitch like Trevor May. Teams like the Giants post drills for aspiring big leaguers dreaming of the stories their futures may hold; the Cubs post extended versions of between-innings entertainment to showcase player personalities. Don’t even get me started on the myriad of podcasts available. The internet holds tons of quality content for those willing to go find it.

But the people MLB wants to reach — the ones who know baseball exists but haven’t felt the urge to check it out — need as little friction as possible between themselves and what will hopefully be the spark that ignites an obsession. They’re not going to spend hours playing roulette with the YouTube algorithm or testing out different writers and podcasters. They need it to show up in the Trending Now section on Netflix or under the For You banner on HBO Max. They need it to show up where they live, looking all shiny and produced, with exclusive team access to enhance the character development and narrative oomph and a manageable level of commitment. Ten episodes, 30 minutes a pop, devour it in a weekend. After that, you’re all caught up on the lore and ready to enjoy baseball.

Much of the existing storytelling in baseball uses some of the ingredients, but not all. Peanut butter without chocolate. Chocolate without peanut butter. Still delicious, but not the same. Or the stories do have all the components, but potential fans can’t find it, or it’s too long, or not long enough, or lacks presentation.

Player and team YouTube channels provide exclusive access and high quality production but need more meaningful narratives and are unlikely to be discovered by anyone other than existing fans. Likewise, player development groups for many organizations have begun marketing their minor leaguers via social media, which effectively generates hype and hope for the future big league club. But again, while drawing you behind the curtain is a plus, it’s unlikely that anyone other than existing fans will find those feeds. Meanwhile, those trained in crafting narratives weave works of art across a variety of mediums but tend to lack the type of access and platform needed to transcend the sport’s existing bubble and reach mainstream pop culture.

The context surrounding Formula 1’s mainstream ascent in the U.S. certainly differs from that of baseball, suggesting that even if MLB produced its own Drive to Survive and found a suitable platform to partner with, the results would not compare. Like the NFL, F1 races happen just once a week, and they typically air on Sunday mornings, before football starts for the day and with little other competition for eyeballs. The events themselves are fast-paced and strategic yet still at risk for chaos fueled by human error. MLB, on the other hand, plays a 162-game season, competing with other primetime programming, and while it strives to feature many of the same characteristics of F1, it failed to do so for long enough that it forced a wave of rule changes to rewind a few concerning trends.

F1 brought in fans with little to no prior awareness of the sport in a country where few of their live events occur. Their market saturation started at zero, leaving nowhere to go but up. There’s no way that a similar show about baseball would double the sport’s viewership and attendance. But it doesn’t need to. Despite a general public distracted by a deluge of entertainment options, the sport still posts strong revenue and local ratings. Compare MLB to its closest competition: the NBA. Sunday Night Baseball pulls in similar ratings to nationally broadcast NBA games, both checking in around 1.6 million. Likewise, the World Series and the NBA Finals both drew around 12 million viewers.

Competing with other sports may not be the best framing of the actual goal, though. The true goal is growing the sport and producing the best possible product for the fans. Given all the appropriate cultural and technological context, baseball and MLB are doing well. The sport has already survived over a century, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue in that manner. But while baseball isn’t dying, that doesn’t mean we can’t improve its quality of life.

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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1 year ago

This is an outstanding, deeply considered series — thanks, Kiri. Similarly to “Drive to Survive,” it was the TV series “The Ultimate Fighter” that propelled the UFC to spectacular new heights, and it did so by telling human stories (about prospects, not champions) while subtly teaching viewers the intricacies of MMA. But I agree with you that TV shows aren’t necessarily the point — In this age of the smartphone and QR code, everybody’s holding a literal portal into supplementary content that can and should emphasize the stories at the heart of the sport.