Baseball’s Back, As Inconsistent As Ever

by Joel Hulsey

Prior to 1969, Major League Baseball (MLB) was a brand without an (visual) identity. Certainly, a century of existence had provided MLB dominance within American culture, but its brand lacked a logo that would give it independent visual recognition. That year, Jerry Dior designed the MLB logo in just one afternoon (according to legend), a moment of inspiration that is a testament to its timeless design.

So timeless, in fact, that the league has retained the same logo for 53 MLB seasons (and counting). The consistency of that logo has helped MLB communicate one of its most important characteristics as a brand: stability.

When a brand stays true to its core values, it builds sustainability for its customers and target audience. To do so, it’s vital that an organization not only adopts a core set of beliefs, but that it fully believes in the story it’s actively crafting day to day. In the case of the MLB, its story is built on American exceptionalism, traditional values, and ease of access for the public to partake in the growing of the sport.

In the 25 years that followed the implementation of MLB’s logo, the league struck a fine balance between its franchises, owners, players, and the public alike. Although the league, its customers, and partners had theirs ups and downs, the values they shared and the common desire to keep baseball at the center of American life ensured an alignment that was successful for everyone.

Until August 12, 1994.

The league’s first long-term work stoppage went into effect at midnight that evening and lasted a staggering 232 days. When the MLB players went on strike, the impact it had on fans went beyond athletes’ paystubs or even missed games.

The strike directly contradicted the core promise of MLB’s never-changing brand: the dependability and simplicity of an American-born pastime. The turmoil ultimately nixed 948 games in full, including the 1994 postseason and World Series.

“Fans must boycott if games return,” opined Bob Raissman of the New York Daily News. “It’s not about a game anymore.” The MLB had built its relationship with fans around a defined set of values, and betraying that struck deeper than the work stoppage itself.

Just before the 1994 strike, the league had set an all-time record for its highest per-game attendance at 31,256. Thanks to the stoppage, in the span of just one year, that number dropped 20 percent to 25,051. By the end of the 1995 season, the league’s identity crisis had morphed into a popularity crisis.

When a brand is in a chaotic period, a journey inward to better understand the brand’s core purpose is what shows the path forward.

Despite the animosity between the league, owners, players, and fans during the strike, one aspect had never changed: the timeless MLB logo. The red-white-and-blue color scheme, the ambiguous player cutout, and the recognizable curvatures paint a tradition unlike none other, something that brought peace of mind to the sport during tumultuous times.

This all-American persona provided structure to how the MLB told its story in other ways. Through good times and bad, consumers relied on a brand identity that basked in its traditional roots dating a century, something which provided ample comfortability for daily baseball games, fandom, and memory-making.

For the first time in 90 years during the strike, the World Series was canceled. Whereas fans had grown accustomed to the league delivering on their uncompromised promise of postseason baseball in October, they now felt its absence.

Although the strike concluded on April 2, 1995, the dwindled interest in the sport resulted in significant revenue loss for the league and their then-28 teams.

Although MLB franchises have several channels to drive revenue, local television and radio deals, ticket prices, and food and merchandise all come down to the connection between the fan and the organization. And that connection was at its weakest point following the strike. However true the “America’s pastime” sentiment once was, the MLB brand was suffering, and the league found it difficult to balance the unchanging nature of its values and the need to recapture its popularity, relevancy, and success.

While the league did see a sizable boost in attendance for the 1996 season — a jump of 19 percent from the 1995 average of 50 million fans — that number again stagnated in 1997. However, the MLB’s positioning would be given new life with a kind of situational awareness designated for infamy in the sports world and beyond.

Prior to the start of the 1998 season, there was speculation that former New York Yankees outfielder Roger Maris’ record of 61 home runs could be broken. Seattle Mariners outfielder Ken Griffey Jr., Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa, and St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Mark McGwire were the leading contenders to potentially make history — a jolt of energy which paved the way for the MLB to position itself as a must-watch product.

The “Home Run Chase of ‘98” is often credited as having saved baseball. Renewed interest now carried much more than a casual conversation about the return of baseball, the future of the game, or even the new era of record-breaking home runs. The MLB now found itself at the center of American culture, just as it was in the heyday of baseball’s golden era.

The chase to break Maris’ home run record did more than provide media recognition amongst the public, too. The evening of September 10, 1998, when McGwire hit his historic 62nd home run, Fox Sports’ broadcast yielded a 12.9 Nielsen rating and drew in over 43 million viewers.

Amid this chase, the MLB was reaching the peak of its newfound identity as a must-watch, need-to-know brand. Ahead of McGwire’s record-breaking home run, the MLB and the Player’s Union created an official locker room t-shirt to bring more eyes to the history-making milestone. The New York Times reported that at least 200,000 orders were placed by retailers following its announcement.

In that moment, it felt as though the MLB had recaptured what made its brand unique. However, in those heady moments of popularity, the brand was sowing the seeds of its next disaster — again by ignoring its own story.

Ultimately, Mark McGwire would break Maris’ home run record on the final day of the regular season.

MLB’s decision to celebrate known cheaters like McGwire and Sosa would prove to be the next betrayal that set into motion the stain of the “steroid era” that resulted in inconsistent league-wide attendance and revenue in the years since. Even for the fan relationships briefly recaptured in 1998, the consistent disconnect with the brand’s values has been hard to overcome.

To endure, a brand must be able to provide trust and dependability with its consumers. Success demands consistency to a brand’s product — an expectation built around the brand’s promise and the story that communicates it through each stakeholder touch point. A brand must be hungry for feedback, receptive to finding talent that benefits their messaging in the long-term, and eager to invest in relevant resources to better enhance their image as it evolves.

Remember — consistency doesn’t prevent change. Rather, staying consistent allows for evolution into a greater product or service. Just as the MLB adapted from its devastating loss of public interest for several years in the 1990s, a brand’s determination to build (or rebuild) its reputation allows for expansion into the next stage of its mission.

The league’s incessant inability to learn from its own history forged a bitter labor dispute again, this time between the 2021–22 MLB seasons. Although the latest lockout proved to be less consequential in the short-term (no games were canceled and Opening Day was only pushed back to early April) yet another publicly disdained lockout could again prove to harm its image in the long-term.

Will MLB stick to its story and values to prevent further bitterness, or will it allow a lack of consistency to cause the same events to unfold again? In recent years, viewership has yet again dwindled. Cost of attendance has risen in price. Self-referential player marketing is nearly nonexistent. Should their messaging continue as it has, the only consistent aspect of the MLB will be its inconsistency.

Joel Hulsey is a storytelling copywriter at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.

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