The MLB Needs a Lesson from NBA Twitter

Pat White
March 4, 2020

Social media thrives on engaging, sharable content. Every day our DMs and mentions are flooded with memes, GIFs and viral videos. Heck, Michael Bloomberg is paying influencers to make memes about him for his presidential campaign. Content is king, and social media provides a fast channel to the content you want. This is especially true in the sports industry. 

Sports and social media go hand-in-hand in the digital age. It’s where fans go for all of their news, updates, and highlights. No professional sports league is better at marketing itself than the NBA. What NBA Commissioner Adam Silver realized early on is that growing the game of basketball can be accomplished through its online community: fans attracting fans. It why NBA content goes viral more often than any other sports league. 

Instead of monetizing every highlight with pre-roll advertising or presenting sponsors, the NBA gives fans the freedom to share their content. It’s free marketing. Zion Williamson is one of the up-and-coming marketing chips for the league—I’m more inclined to tune-in to a New Orleans Pelicans game at 10:30 p.m. on a Wednesday after watching highlights of him dominating on social media. 

This type of highlight freedom is what brings Instagram and Twitter accounts like ESPN’s House of Highlights, Barstool Sports’ Mickstape Show and The Ringer’s #RingerNBA to prominence. The NBA understands that it thrives on the global marketability of its players on social media. Fans providing free marketing = long-term revenue growth and sustainability. Economics 101. 

So after looking at the meteoric rise of the NBA, why aren’t we talking about Major League Baseball in the same breath? Baseball is America’s pastime. It’s The Sandlot, Field of Dreams, having-a-catch-with-your-dad type of nostalgic. But baseball’s past is much more enticing than baseball’s present. 

A large reason for that is the MLB’s restrictions on highlight rights. Fans aren’t able to share Bryce Harper’s 410-foot, walk-off home run unless it comes from a licensed account. Free viral marketing has been taken off the table and yet, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred wants players to show more personality. He called out the face of the league, Mike Trout, for not being popular as Manfred feels he should be:

“You cannot market a player passively. You can’t market anything passively. You need people to engage with those to whom you are trying to market in order to have effective marketing. We are very interested in having our players more engaged and having higher-profile players and helping our players develop their individual brand. But that involves the player being actively engaged.”

Placing the blame on the game’s best player doesn’t seem like the best solution. So instead, baseball decided to fundamentally change the rules to speed up the game, are kicking around the idea to expand the number of playoff teams, and, oh yeah, they also are in the midst of the biggest cheating scandal in the last 100 years! 

Congrats, MLD: You’ve got fans talking about the league now! Except it’s for all of the wrong reasons. Are you really concerned about little Billy in St. Louis, MO tweeting a video of his favorite player? If there was ever a time to let fans grow the game organically, this would be the time. 

“You can’t market anything passively,” Manfred said about Trout. Maybe it’s time to take a page from the NBA and let the fans aggressively market your sport on social media.