SBJ/May 2-8, 2011/Marketing and Sponsorship

MLB builds a Fan Cave where baseball intersects pop culture

Terry Lefton
It was a day after the opening in late March of the Greenwich Village reality show/dorm room/new media showcase that MLB calls its Fan Cave. Inside a 15,000-square-foot space with 14-foot windows that once held a Tower Records, a pair of super-fans will watch every MLB game this season, and in the process, prove that a sport considered by some to be as anachronistic as, um, a record store, can be relevant to a generation whose idea of “being social” involves more bits and bytes than brats and beers.

Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business, was there to watch it all happen. As word spread around the NYU neighborhood that “Jersey Shore” regular Pauly D was a guest DJ inside the Cave, the crowd outside on 4th and Broadway grew from zero to around 100 people in minutes, with each 20-something holding the wireless device that beckoned them there around 2 p.m. So maybe Pauly D’s multiple tattoos and piercings, both above and below the belt, weren’t the only things that were important anymore.

“That showed me early on that we had built a wickedly effective engine for content, some baseball related and some not,” said Brosnan, who has seen countless efforts to connect baseball with younger consumers during his 20 years with MLB. “I don’t think we are ever going to become Kim Kardashian. But if baseball can get into the discussion at the social watercooler, we win.”

In terms of on-field content, MLB Advanced
Media has built a $500 million business at its own downtown sanctum. But this is the story of how the MLB league office got new media/social media religion, as manifested by the immersive Fan Cave, which has 15 HDTVs, six PlayStation 3s loaded with MLB-licensed games and a barber chair for styling from “guest barbers and tattoo artists.’’ There’s an 18-foot-tall statue of Willie Mays that has its own Twitter feed. Naturally, a reality show consulted on the effort, as ABC’s
MLB (3)
Hall of famers (top, from left) Mike Schmidt, Rollie Fingers and Ozzie Smith explore the MLB Fan Cave with contest winner Mike O’Hara and check out new baseball-themed ads from PepsiMax.
“Extreme Makeover” served as an adviser.

Cave denizens and contest winners Mike O’Hara and Ryan Wagner will be in the cave all season in an attempt to watch all 2,430 regular-season games, while relentlessly blogging and tweeting MLB information to those who may only know Nolan Ryan as an owner. Of course, there’ll be other new media content and webisodes on MLBfancave.com. What are you? Some 20th-century Luddite?

Credit new MLB creative agency Hill Holliday for inspiring some new media thinking at America’s pastime. However, when they first pitched the Fan Cave idea, it was misplaced. Hill Holliday got the concept right, a showcase of all things baseball to show with super-avid fans consuming the game. But their vision was to stage it in Cooperstown, N.Y., population 2,032, which could only be considered busy on the one day every summer when the Baseball Hall of Fame holds its induction. So it was moved to New York City.

“The idea is to inspire more consumption by profiling super-avid fans consuming every game and by putting it on a stage,” said Hill Holliday President Karen Kaplan. “But even outside that, our pitch to baseball was that it was so full of content, characters and plot lines, that it should be all about leveraging [18- to 34-year-olds’] social systems with sharable content.”

Turns out MLB was thinking the same way when it began to cast about for a new shop last September after parting with longtime agency McCann Erickson. “We knew the world is different and we needed to do a better job of allowing fans to access the game,” said MLB Chief Marketing Officer Jacqueline Parkes, on a recent day at the Fan Cave, when Pepsi was debuting its latest MLB–themed ads. “So this is our test tube, if you will.”

The “test tube” hopes to host around 100 events this year, along with player appearances and sponsor and licensee functions.

MLB’s creative brief asked agencies to inspire more consumption of baseball, convert casual fans to avid fans and team fans into league fans and to build a better connection to the 18- to 34-year-old consumers coveted by many advertisers. Those are the ones researchers term “grazers,’’ since they consume media a little bit at a time and often simultaneously. Anyone with a teenager knows they can’t do homework without also being plugged into some form of electronic media.

“That’s the demo everyone tries to reach and the results have been pretty fickle,” Brosnan said. “What made us think about a new approach was that we started asking ourselves if we were preaching to the converted [baseball fans] when it came to traditional advertising.’’

People can love or hate baseball because every season is long, involved, complex and chock-a-block full of multifaceted characters, rules and plot twists. Hill Holliday’s approach was to convince MLB that it had much in common with successful entertainment brands like Harry Potter, “Halo,” “Lost” and “Batman.”

“Our strategy was to show them that MLB had all the hallmarks of a modern entertainment brand,” Kaplan said. “A sprawling cast of characters and a lot of plot twists. And they all use lots of shareable content to connect younger fans.’’

Thus, a marketing campaign centered on MLB’s “epic nature,” and the Fan Cave, where you can’t find anything with a price tag.

“No one’s selling anything, it is just a great fan environment,” said David Armour, vice president of development programming and sales at Endemol, an agency that assisted with the design and build out, and is producing the webisodes.

Another welcome byproduct of the Fan Cave is that its unique nature has fostered integration across MLB. So you can see a version of the Pepsi porch from that longtime MLB sponsor. Product from on-field licensees Majestic and New Era are in evidence. Apple and Sony products are very visible throughout the floor.

Clearly the thinking at MLB central has changed when it comes to marketing the Grand Old Game. Now we’ll see if it can grab some of the “Jersey Shore” audience on a more permanent basis.

“We’re not looking at marketing, we’re looking at content,” Parkes said when asked how MLB’s marketing approach has changed. “We used to be about 30-second spots and dots. Now it’s consume more, share more. Hopefully, that will dimensionalize baseball in a way that fits the times.”

Terry Lefton can be reached at tlefton@sportsbusinessjournal.com.

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