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Volume 22 No. 18
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‘Election Day’ covers the fan engagement bases for MLB

The 90th edition of Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game in Cleveland featured the game’s brightest stars and best performers, but the biggest winner to emerge from this year’s Midsummer Classic may well be the fans and MLB’s new voting selection process.

From the first All-Star Game in 1933, the selection methods for team rosters have been a flashpoint for debates and critiques. Fans selected the nine starters for each team for that first All-Star Game in Chicago, while managers chose nine reserves for each club.

In nine decades, All-Star Game voting has undergone no fewer than 10 seismic shifts in how rosters are chosen, as MLB has wrestled with equitability, technology and viability to best capture fan interest, garner significant social participation and maximize sponsor value, all while aiming to reward the best players with roster spots.

In recent years, MLB’s popular final fan vote has been heavily criticized for leaving deserving candidates on the outside looking in, but large social media numbers resulted from huge market interactions and fan engagement in team campaigns for the final roster spot. 

In 2019, MLB went back to the drawing board to devise its own version of an electoral college by implementing two rounds of voting to boost fan participation. 

During the Primary, from May 28 to June 21, fans narrowed the field of team representatives for all eight position players to three finalists at each position. Over a 28-hour Election Day, June 26-27, fans selected each position starter. The often-overhyped final fan vote was eliminated.

The result? A new fan-focused, digitally powered, authentic and meaningful voting experience. Players, fans and baseball media have hailed the process for its fairness and equability for all parties.

While no voting process is infallible and without criticism, those that strike a positive balance between generating significant fan participation and equitability of selections resonate by checking the right boxes of fan engagement. 

The 2019 fan-voting campaign became a winner by maximizing five key drivers to engage fans and generate participation: 

1) Trust: For fans who hear “small market” too frequently, all-star voting often feels like an exercise in futility. The Primary vote narrowed the list of all team reps at each position to the top three finalists. Voting critics argue that since most votes stop here, larger market fan bases are able to stock rosters. On Election Day, MLB permitted users one vote among the three finalists. Keeping the same market-driven motivation as the “final fan vote,” clubs and players continued to work collaboratively to build candidate support.

Building trust to demonstrate fairness is a critical first step to driving audience participation. The lesson of equitability has long plagued MLB All-Star voting. By “getting it right” on Election Day, fans validated a fair and equal process.

2) Multi-Platform Access: Through MLB.com and team sites, along with the MLB At-Bat and Ballpark Apps, fans could vote up to five times per 24-hour time period for the Primary and just once on Election Day. At Google, fans were able to vote by searching a player’s name or by searching “MLB vote” to return a ballot. On Election Day, fans could Google up to 17 unique players per day to cast a vote. 

Today’s digital and social convergence requires a multi-platform approach. Effective campaigns align with platforms by creating content and user habits that resonate best with that user target. An MLB-Google platform combination maximized engagement among both die-hard and casual fans. The simplicity to vote didn’t require a rule book to follow.

3) Authenticity: When it comes to sports sponsorship and content, authenticity has never been more important. Brands, content creators and sponsors all clamor for authentic moments. MLB’s alignment with Google as a sponsor for fan voting created a natural sponsor activation. 

Ask any millennial or Gen-Zer a question, and if they don’t know, you’ll be told to “just Google it.” Nearly 6 billion Google searches are conducted every day. MLB reduced barriers to participation and didn’t force audiences to deviate from their daily habits to vote.

4) Meaningful: Another long-standing critique of voting has been that only the biggest stars are selected. The 2019 game featured 31 first-time All-Stars. Only one team had as many as three starters. Election Day votes resulted in nearly half of the starting selections from “small-market” fan bases.

Meaningful moments happen in social media when fans believe their time is worth the effort. More than 500,000 votes were totaled for each starting selection, with Mike Trout nearly eclipsing 1 million votes as the top vote-getter, in just 28 hours. A two-step voting mechanism created fan ownership to follow through.

5) Time-Constrained: MLB owned a midweek, late-June window in social media, driving engagement in and out of ballparks and across individual markets. A one-month Primary created urgency while providing real estate to promote a one-day moment, resulting in mass participation. With astonishing one-day numbers in the first year, an Election Day concept shows the value in perishability. 

By sharpening these keys to fan engagement, MLB’s new approach to a timeless debate reinforced a rule for every team management playbook: Give fans the power to participate, and they’ll be vested in the end result. 

Brad Horn is a professor of practice at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School and former vice president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com