Players across MLB have been taking advantage of the league’s vast player marketing system, leading to positive returns for all involved.
Inside a spacious luxury suite down the left field line at Citizens Bank Park on a rainy Halloween night in Philadelphia, Cleveland Guardians pitcher Triston McKenzie sat next to his father, Stanton, while sipping on bottled water, taking a break from a long day of creating content on and around baseball’s grandest stage.
Major League Baseball invited McKenzie to the World Series as its social media correspondent, going behind the scenes with Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies players like Jose Altuve, Kyle Tucker, Jeremy Pena, and Brandon Marsh, on and off the field to record and capture content for Instagram, TikTok, and other platforms. The initiative is part of MLB’s broad, far-reaching player marketing program, which aims to grow the league and the sport through its elite athletes, providing a broad suite of resources to help it grow its brands and get the league in front of new audiences across all demographics and walks of life.
The lanky 25-year-old McKenzie looks to icons like LeBron James and Odell Beckham Jr. as players whose off-field business and social media strategies he wanted to emulate. Whether it’s videos, pictures, or IG/TikTok Lives, the biggest social media key for the West Palm Beach, Florida native and Tampa-area resident is interacting with people and finding different ways to relate to fans and followers while figuring out the most natural and comfortable way in doing so.
“If I want to be in a position where I have a million followers on Instagram,” McKenzie told Boardroom, “it has to be something that people can really connect with. When I’m on Instagram, I don’t want to just see ad posts or boosted posts. I want to see the actual content the creator’s putting out.”
MLB player marketing invited McKenzie to its New York City offices in 2021, an opportunity it offers every player, to describe what it can do to help players build their brands.
“‘What would you like from us?’” McKenzie recalled being asked.
From there, MLB helped McKenzie figure out the type of content he liked to post and what resonated most with his fans. He learned that his content got the most engagement when he posted something and stuck around to interact with his followers immediately after. Player marketing then helped make edits for him while providing the tools and means for him to put better content out in the future.
When McKenzie and Cleveland headed to Williamsport for the 2021 Little League Classic, MLB tapped him to be its social media liaison there.
“I was interacting with the kids, doing stuff that I normally do,” he said. “But getting it on camera and letting my fans see that because that’s the little stuff that I do at the games that they really like but don’t necessarily see on my social media.”
Following that success in 2021, MLB reached out to McKenzie’s reps at Octagon after Cleveland’s postseason ended in October to see if he wanted to be a major front-facing presence for its World Series coverage. It was a chance for the player with a sub-3 ERA last season to share his love and excitement for the game, his first time at the World Series, and get an inside look at the proceedings from a player’s lens.
Skies cleared in time for World Series Game 3 on Nov. 1, and two neighboring VIP suites at Citizens Bank Park were more of a red carpet than it was a baseball venue.
Present on this day were current stars like McKenzie, 2022 NL Cy Yong Award winner Sandy Alcantara, new MLB The Show cover star Jazz Chisholm of the Miami Marlins, Harrison Bader of the New York Yankees, former Los Angeles Dodger and current Boston Red Sox infielder Justin Turner, and Willy Adames of the Milwaukee Brewers. Also in attendance were Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre, country music legend Tim McGraw, top Latino artist Myke Towers, MMA fighter Eddie Alvarez, and Top Gun: Maverick star Miles Teller.
As the food and drinks flowed and the Phillies sent their fans into a frenzy with five home runs off Lance McCullers in a 7-0 win, McKenzie made his way from the field to go on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, live-streaming along with Chisholm and other players. The player marketing program, led by director EJ Aguado, was on-hand filming the proceedings for its own social channels as part of its far-reaching efforts to grow the sport of baseball.
Aguado started at MLB out of college in 2014 on the social side, helping run team accounts at MLB Advanced Media before moving into a role helping those teams’ social strategies. The department then moved to the commissioner’s office, bringing a digital approach to the marketing department. Tasked with figuring out how MLB can support players on social media and help them be more active while gaining followers, the player social program launched in 2018.
The pilot initiative began with a Dropbox link of photos and videos sent to one agency, where a handful of players posted content to their accounts. Things took off in 2019 when MLB became an early integrator of cloud-based digital media collection and distribution platform Greenfly, co-founded by former MLB All-Star Shawn Green. Combined with MLB’s Live Content Correspondent Program, which gathers photos and videos from the stands at all 30 ballparks for players and teams to deliver to their social feeds, 2019 was largely spent getting as many players on board as it could and forging important relationships with players and agents.
“We needed to find an easy way to get social content in players’ hands and make it as frictionless as possible,” Aguado told Boardroom. “It was a pretty universal need that we understood.”
In 2022, the player marketing program said it served approximately 1,900 players, including 500 minor-leaguers, helping send nearly 60,000 downloads and shares throughout the season for use on their social accounts. Custom content output increased 64% in 2022 compared to 2021, leading to a 41% higher interaction rate compared to average player posts.
Early adopters included All-Stars Christian Yelich and Alex Bregman, quickly making it clear that players were interested in obtaining content in an efficient and streamlined manner to the point where many are using it daily for recurring and one-off social posts.
“With the help of the Greenfly app, so many graphics that are coming to us at our fingertips makes it a lot easier on us to connect with our fans without having to deal with a social media manager or getting a hold of the photographer,” Turner told Boardroom. “There was a gap in getting that content to players and now it’s a lot easier.”
The success of the player social program provided the foundation to expand and evolve its offerings to player experiences, broader strategy help, and brand-building resources in the form of the player marketing program. With the landscape constantly changing and athlete marketing growing and evolving daily, the department has to constantly change with the times to grow the sport.
Bringing in Relief
When the sports world shut down during the pandemic, MLB produced some player IG Live shows on its channels and other initiatives as players were looking for opportunities while stuck inside. As baseball got a summer start in 2020 and safety precautions kept work largely remote in 2021, player marketing found ways to mix in digital and in-person opportunities in ways that made sense in that landscape.
Karin Timpone joined MLB as chief marketing officer in August 2021 following a successful stint as Marriott International’s global marketing officer and noticed tangible progress within the player marketing department over her 18+ months to date at the company. While the player marketing department is a relatively small group of about 12, more employees, tools, and technology were shifted toward the player side over time.
“Under EJ’s direction, what that team’s been able to do is create a pretty good cadence with players to identify opportunities for them to actually cultivate their own brand story,” Timpone told Boardroom.
That cadence developed over the years by dividing the department into small groups with different overlapping focuses. One group is focused specifically on the player social program, including the daily distribution of content, customization of graphics, and hype videos that go out to the players through Greenfly. That group works closely with the entire marketing department, design teams, and live content teams while also lending photographers and videographers to players for off-field events.
Another focus is player marketing relations and helping with players’ off-field experiences and initiatives. Player marketing was able to organize more than 30 off-the-field player activations during the season, including getting players backstage at concerts, sporting events, and other notable functions, embedding them into pop culture and gaining them publicity in what Timpone called cultural crossovers.
A crucial player marketing function is also supporting players with their charitable events and philanthropic endeavors. Whether that’s a charity or foundation event, a youth clinic, or a gala, player marketing offers support with marketing coverage and the opportunity for a player to take over an MLB social channel or coverage from one of the league’s YouTube original shows.
“We’ll use our knowledge and our insights on the players to align the correct player to that opportunity to elevate what we’re doing from our standpoint as well,” Aguado added.
These initiatives finally kicked into full gear in 2022, the first year when Aguado felt everything was back and that player marketing could do the most with the program.
“Short answer, it was awesome!” he said. “We want to help them build their brands up and grow the game through them, trying to grow, scale, and be intentional in the opportunities we provide that are relevant and authentic to the players.”
MLB found success in a number of wide-ranging player marketing initiatives in 2022, most notably:
- The continuation of a prior initiative where players who competed in the Home Run Derby at All-Star week in Los Angeles announced their participation in the event through their own social channels, with MLB then amplifying those posts, bringing those players’ attention and engagement.
- Throughout the season, Yankees superstar Aaron Judge and his team worked closely with player marketing to post a video after each series win. Judge and Co. knew that an edited piece of content would be waiting in his Greenfly account, and Judge was proactive in putting those out during what turned into a record-breaking year. Also during Judge’s home run chase, MLB worked with outside agencies like Endeavor‘s 160 Over 90 to help build buzz outside baseball as Judge passed Roger Maris.
- MLB’s content capture team has been more social-focused this season. During the Opening Day “Enjoy The Show” campaign, MLB interviewed Pena’s parents live during his first big league at-bat and captured their excitement when he hit a home run. “That’s not something we’d ever done before, where we mixed a traditional advertisement, integrated in a live piece of content, then sprinkled in the paid media digital onto it,” Timpone said. “But it absolutely worked and we carried it on through the season.”
- In the charitable space, Chicago White Sox All-Star Tim Anderson threw his first ever Sneaker Ball to benefit his foundation and White Sox charities. Boardroom was in attendance as player marketing sent a couple of its own staffers, a photographer for Anderson’s personal channels, and allowed Anderson to take over an MLB account for an evening. During the offseason, MLB has only further leveraged its resources to help players take advantage of similar marketing and content opportunities.
- MLB met up in person with future young stars at its draft combine and Arizona Fall League to inform them about player marketing’s resources and the importance of brand building. Aguado said educating players and building relationships early on in a player’s journey is crucial to the sport’s success.
- More than 30 current players visited MLB’s New York office last season, where they received tours, marketing meetings, and brand-building sessions. The group broke down players’ social analytics and how it can help amplify player posts. “A lot of them saw significant spikes in their following afterward because of the takeovers on MLB channels, and a lot of them led to some cool content collaborations,” Aguado said.
- One of those cool collaborations following an in-person meeting was with New York Mets All-Star closer Edwin Diaz. Player marketing ideated a social video after every save, and a special video to capitalize off the success of the viral Timmy Trumpet collaboration toward the end of the season after Diaz’s “Narco” walk-out song went trending around the world.
- Cross-cultural initiatives included getting Seattle Mariners star outfielder Julio Rodriguez backstage at a Daddy Yankee concert where he met the legendary reggaeton artist and got a picture for his Instagram account. While Towers was on tour in Puerto Rico, MLB made sure he met up with some famous players and wore their jerseys during different nights of his concerts.
What started as a largely automated effort in providing players marketing support has grown more customized and bespoke as the player marketing program and its relationship with the players grew, Timpone noted. There’s now an internal database of player likes and dislikes, she said, unlocking attention to detail the league’s greatly benefited from. That’s something that player agent Jon Einalhori, who represents Mets superstar Pete Alonso, Dodgers catcher Will Smith, and Detroit Tigers outfielder Riley Greene, noticed as well.
“When Pete Alonso and Will Smith make the USA WBC team, I know they’re going come up with a hype video. I don’t even have to ask for it anymore,” Einalhori told Boardroom in November. “They’re very good at knowing their players.”
If a player has a favorite band or song, MLB will use it in his hype videos. Alonso’s biggest off-field focus right now is his charity and foundation, which has recently been supported by an annual comedy show. All it takes is one request for the marketing team to send content capture guys and a hype video beforehand and a “thank you” video after the event.
“They just want to give the players the best resources to promote themselves and, by extension, promote MLB, their teams, and the brand on the whole,” Einalhori said.
Closing it Out
Chisholm got invited to the World Series to not just collaborate with McKenzie but also appear on MLB Network and the league’s Instagram.
“They made me known more than I tried to make myself known,” Chisholm told Boardroom. “They did a really good job in helping me market myself and showing who I am everywhere. Everything they’ve done for me has really helped me show who I am and show my name out to the world.”
Aguado, Timpone, the marketing team, and different departments across baseball are constantly working with teams, agents, and players to identify who’s interested and available to help grow baseball around the world. It’s how a small staff is able to assist hundreds of players to best market themselves to the world.
“Triston definitely helped us cross between on-field and off-field story. And it was really effective,” Timpone said. “He was just so natural and so comfortable.”
There’s long been a perception that baseball doesn’t market its players well enough, something players themselves believe is now changing for the better.
“I feel like MLB can become the NBA soon enough,” Chisholm said. “I’m really happy what the MLB is getting into because I feel like the popularity is growing.”
Baseball decided, Einalhori said, that if it wasn’t to be as popular as other sports, it won’t be because their player marketing options fall short of other leagues.
“I would venture to say their offerings and their support of player marketing would rival the other leagues, if not be better,” he said.
MLB has taken steps in the right direction, according to McKenzie, where fans are seeing more of the players than they were previously accustomed to through investing more in social media and getting players out in front of more people in more ways than ever before. As younger players who grew up on social media become a larger share of MLB’s player pool, more will want all the tools they can get to grow their follower count.
“I remember dying to get a blue checkmark on Instagram,” McKenzie said. “And I think there are a lot of guys like me, that look like me, that have come up in baseball like me, that see the importance of it. As a fan of the game, I follow all my favorite players and I want to see what they’re doing. I want to see how they live their lives outside of baseball, how they live their life in the clubhouse. And being able to give fans a backseat experience where they can see it is really dope because I know what it would’ve meant to me as a fan.”
As the 2023 season approaches, Timpone sees MLB’s player marketing department evolving by just doing more. She likes the trajectory but wants the players to show up more in the culture both for their athleticism and their interests off the field while finding the right opportunities and the right platforms to highlight everything. Look for baseball to broaden its message to showcase the sport’s young superstars from a diverse set of countries and backgrounds.
“We’ll continue to have our heritage as America’s pastime, but we have a much larger global aspiration,” Timpone said. “It speaks to how we want to really broaden our brand position to invite in more fans. We have momentum and we’re going keep building it year over year.”
MLB began Spring Training this year by hosting its first-ever Player Marketing House in Arizona, where 28 players visited to conduct meetings with MLB staff and shoot special, personality-driven content. Players who visited included Mookie Betts, Anderson, Dustin May, Austin Nola, Ross Stripling, Josh Jung, and Shane Bieber.
As Aguado comes up on 10 years at MLB, his overarching focus will continue to be reaching as many players as possible, learning how he can help, and make sure player marketing authentically delivers them the best possible resources to succeed. And as the media landscape changes, he has to make sure the league is staying up to speed on all the latest trends and developments and remains current, relevant, resonant, and authentic.
In 2023, Aguado wants MLB player marketing to continue to scale and stay on top of what’s next in a constantly evolving space in an area crucial to the sport’s current and future success.
“We’re trying to grow the game through our players by helping them build up their brands,” Aguado said. “And whatever resources we can put forward to make that happen in an authentic way, that’s always going to be our mission.”
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