Can a game with no face really call itself the national pastime?
We raise this question because, as a new baseball season begins this week, there is no answer to the once-simple question: Who is the Face of Baseball?
The NBA is the LeBron and Steph Show. The NFL has Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and an army of rock-star quarterbacks. But baseball? On one level, it seems to be overflowing with dynamic young stars. Once it steps outside its own comfort zone, however, it’s as “Faceless” as it has been in decades.
And how do we know? It’s right there in the new polling data compiled by our friends at Luker on Trends, the company that runs the ESPN Sports Poll.
Between November and February, that firm surveyed more than 6,000 American sports fans, age 12 and older. If you don’t count Tim Tebow (please don’t) or Bo Jackson, guess the only three baseball players who showed up among America’s 50 favorite pro athletes?
There was Derek Jeter, at No. 13. He hasn’t played a game in 2½ years. Next came Babe Ruth, at No. 30. He’s the only name on the list — in any sport — who hasn’t appeared in a game for more than eight decades. And finally, you get to Pete Rose, at No. 50. The Hit King last played in the big leagues 31 years ago — and he has been suspended from his sport for the last 28.
So there you have it. America’s three favorite baseball figures: Guys who have been dodging the box scores for a combined 116 years.
In baseball’s defense, respondents were invited to name either active or retired athletes. So the still totally retired Michael Jordan ranked as America’s favorite basketball player (and favorite any kind of player, for that matter). And the no-longer-playing Peyton Manning was our nation’s second-favorite football player (behind Brady).
But 15 active NFL-ers, six active hoopsters, two soccer stars (Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo), two tennis legends (Serena Williams and Roger Federer), one swimmer (Michael Phelps), one hockey player (Sidney Crosby), one sprinter (Usain Bolt), one race car driver (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), one mixed martial artist (Conor McGregor) and one Tiger (Woods) all make appearances on this list before a single active baseball player.
Oh, and one more thing: In polling 17,908 American sports fans on the same question between January and December 2016, the response was pretty much identical. The only significant variation: David Ortiz (at No. 23) was the one other baseball player to crack the top 50. But Jeter, who was just as retired last year as he is this year, was still the top baseball name on the list at No. 12.
So what should we conclude from this data?
“We’ve got to tell Derek, ‘You’ve got to get the uniform back on,’ ” jokes New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi. “It’s time to tell him, ‘You’ve got to get in shape.’ “
No, that won’t be happening. But what is happening? What has brought baseball to this point? And what should it do about it? Let’s answer those critical questions:
Could any baseball player be LeBron?
We begin with a fact from the same polling data: Nearly one in four people who consider themselves “avid” NBA fans (23 percent) say LeBron James is their favorite player. That is how you define the face of your sport.
Now contrast that with baseball — in which no one even remotely approaches the star power of a LeBron. There isn’t a single player in the sport who ranks as the favorite of even 3 percent of all “avid” baseball fans. At the top of that list is the Cubs’ Kris Bryant at 2.9 percent. For comparison, in the NFL, Brady checks in at 9.3 percent.
“That 2.9 percent for MLB is a mixed blessing,” says Rich Luker, the founder of Luker on Trends. “It means the favorites are distributed more evenly across all teams compared to the NBA or NFL — giving all teams a rooting interest. But no one athlete is big enough to draw national attention.”
So what is it about baseball, or LeBron, or the NBA’s star-making machinery, that produces that dramatic a disparity? Arn Tellem thinks he knows. For more than 30 years, he was a high-powered agent for players in both sports. But in 2015 he crossed over to the other side, to work for the Detroit Pistons as a vice chairman for Palace Sports & Entertainment.
“In basketball, compared to baseball, the best player usually wins the last game of the year,” Tellem says. “If you look at the modern NBA, it was Magic [Johnson] and [Larry] Bird, leading into Isiah [Thomas] and Jordan … and now Steph Curry, along with LeBron. And the best player usually wins the last game of the season, or is in the last game of the season. So the NBA playoffs and Finals are a tremendous showcase for the greatest players and the greatest athletes in this country.”
There is no arguing with that, but this just in: The 2016 NBA Finals, featuring that LeBron and Steph Show, still got clobbered in the ratings by the World Series. As did Game 7 of those finals, by Game 7 of the World Series. So while LeBron might have six consecutive appearances in the Finals going for him, that’s not all he has.
For more than three decades, dating to the arrival of Bird and Magic, the NBA has embraced star power as the secret sauce for How To Sell Your League. And baseball? Not so much.
“Baseball has always promoted the game,” Tellem says. “But it’s been more about the game and its history. And it’s been less about the individual players.”
Tellem sees that approach beginning to change. Finally. But in a star-driven society, he said, it can’t shift gears fast enough.
“Baseball is at a point now where they have to reach the youth of America,” he says. “And clearly, [promoting] the game is important. But it’s about using stars and developing stars and helping them become bigger names, as a way of reaching the youth. And baseball has to see that convincing [those stars] and having them participate will serve the game.”
Are the stars just too young?
Let’s take a step back and recognize that at least part of this is cyclical. The most popular active player in the NFL is Tom Brady. He’s 39 years old. The most popular player in the NBA is LeBron. He’s only 32, but this is his 14th season.
They occupy a space in their sport that Jeter and Big Papi once occupied in baseball — megastars who have been around forever, won their rings and transcended not just their market but their entire sport. But once Jeter and Ortiz (and even Alex Rodriguez) spun out the revolving door, was there any baseball player ready to take their place?
Mike Trout is 25. Bryce Harper is 24. Bryant, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Noah Syndergaard and Kyle Schwarber are all 26 or younger. They’re among the brightest stars in baseball. But they’re all still writing their stories. We can recite LeBron’s and Brady’s sagas by heart.
“Think about this,” says one longtime agent. “Tom Brady is  years old. He’s won five Super Bowls. He might be considered the greatest football player ever. And LeBron might be the pinnacle for every athlete, in terms of how much coverage he gets. Name things Albert Pujols did or A-Rod did that approach that. Even Jeter didn’t look to get everything he could. There’s a camera in LeBron’s face every minute of every game. Unless you’re a pitcher, how much is the camera on any baseball player? A couple of minutes a game?”
The point is that the faces of football and basketball have built-in star power that no active baseball player has right now. In baseball, you hear that phrase “period of transition” a lot. With time, with enough October glory, with the right star-making moments, any of those names above could be the next Face of Baseball. But that’s not all it will take.
First, it will take marketing. And MLB and the players’ association have been talking for months about new ways to use players to promote the game. The union is committed, says its chief of business affairs, Tim Slavin, to helping the sport market baseball “around the individuality and personality of the players.” That has to happen, said union head Tony Clark, because “we’ve got a special group of players, as special as any we’ve had in a long time.”
“We have veterans,” Clark says. “We have young players. We have tall, short, heavy, light. We have all of it. … So there’s an opportunity there. And it’s something that’s been discussed for some time.”
But this is about more than marketing. It’s about culture. It’s about making players understand the responsibilities that come with stardom: Major stardom. LeBron-level stardom.
To be a Face of Baseball also means being a Voice of Baseball — and being available to be that type of voice day after day, through the longest of seasons. In the NBA, LeBron speaks regularly for himself, for his team, for his sport, even for his generation, because he has been conditioned to the reality that it’s part of the gig. But baseball players have never been expected to take on that responsibility.
“We’re at a point now where the younger stars coming up have to be groomed that way,” one baseball official says. “By their ballclubs. By GMs. By managers. By the players’ association. They have to understand what accountability and what media relations are all about … because once you’ve learned to say no, it’s easy to say it again and again.”
And finally, baseball has to find ways to overcome its natural limitations. As a local attraction, the cash registers are ringing nearly everywhere. And every market needs its local heroes. But as a sport, as a national presence, baseball also needs icons. There is more to producing those icons than just sitting back and waiting for them to arise organically.
“Baseball has got a group of young players who I think are the next generation,” Tellem says. “But one problem is, they’re not known as well because they haven’t come out of their markets. Baseball is more local, so they haven’t been exposed nationally like basketball players. Baseball has got to try and elevate them, which it’s never really done, and get behind individuals.”
But when folks inside the game hear this type of advice, they ask: What are the players doing to elevate themselves?
Why isn’t Mike Trout “The Face?”
If the NBA or NFL had a 25-year-old two-time MVP in its midst, you think there’s any chance he would rank behind, say, Roger Staubach, on a list of America’s most popular athletes in the 21st century? Of course not. But Trout’s absence from this top 50 actually is a microcosm of his sport’s issues.
The Los Angeles Angels‘ spectacular center fielder has so many selling points: transcendent talent, easy smile and a genuine, low-key, almost Jeter-esque personality. But five full seasons into his career, his team has never won a single postseason game, let alone a World Series. And then there’s this: Mike Trout has no interest in being baseball’s LeBron.
The pride of Millville, New Jersey, is a simple guy, consumed by his devotion to baseball and a set routine. So he has regularly turned down invitations to do late-night talk shows and major national endorsement gigs, not to mention home run derbies and the World Baseball Classic. That’s a source of enough frustration inside MLB that, when we brought up his name to one baseball official, he grumbled, “Mike Trout doesn’t leave Orange County or Millville.”
But Trout’s agent, Craig Landis, has this message for everyone clamoring for more of his otherwise lovable client: Relax. Please.
“Mike Trout doesn’t leave Orange County or Millville.”
Baseball official on Mike Trout’s commitment — or lack thereof — to being the Face of Baseball
“He’s only 25,” Landis says. “His story is not finished. He’s not going to change as a guy. Why change? Everything is going great. He’s got a lot of time. And everything is evolving nicely.”
Among both baseball fans and “avid” baseball fans, Trout ranks as the second-most popular player in his sport, behind Bryant. But in the sports marketing community, he is viewed as a guy who owes it to his employers to do more to promote the game.
“If you’re signing this big contract and you’re benefiting, you have to try to grow the game,” says Bill Sutton, director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida. “I feel this way about any sport. It’s the athlete’s obligation to grow the game. Other people made it better for you coming in. You need to make it better for the people coming after you and the people who are there with you.”
But while Trout bides his time, he might find himself losing the spotlight — to a guy who already has passed him in popularity, according to the ESPN Sports Poll.
Can Kris Bryant be “The Face?”
If you injected people inside the commissioner’s office with truth serum and asked them to predict the next Face of Baseball, we’d bet Rob Manfred’s mortgage they would nominate Kristopher Lee Bryant.
The Cubs’ third baseman has fielded the last out of a fairly memorable World Series. His looks and personality are straight out of a Hollywood casting call. He has a monster shoe deal with Adidas. His Red Bull prank videos have gone viral. And he just turned 25.
“I feel like he is going to be the Face of Baseball,” says his 2016 Cubs teammate David Ross, “because he already is that perfect. He’s the guy that makes you sick to your stomach. You know sometimes when you’re on a plane during the season, you like to complain, right? Or you’re like, ‘I can’t believe we’re waiting through this rain delay.’ And Kris chimes in like, ‘I’m just happy I get to play baseball for a living.’ And you’re like, ‘Shut up, dude. You make me sick.’
“He’s just this golden child when it comes to his mindset. He just wants [to] go out and be the best baseball player. He loves baseball, and he wants to be great because he expects that out of himself. He’s been the greatest player on every stage he’s ever stepped on. High school player of the year. College player of the year. Minor league player of the year. MVP of the league. Rookie of the year. He makes me sick to my stomach. Give me a break.”
Every arrow around Bryant is pointing up, including the polling data this winter, which places him as the most popular player in the game among both general baseball fans and “avid” fans. But he also plays for a team with a ton of charismatic faces around him.
Can a whole team become “The Face?”
Anybody want to nominate the entire Cubs franchise as the next Face of Baseball?
“I really think the Cubs are The Face,” Sutton says. “I’ve never said this in baseball before — or at least not since the ’50s and ’60s, when the Yankees just dominated and they were the Face of Baseball. But now it’s back, except this is for a totally different reason. Now it’s a different world, and you have a team that did something extraordinary … and they’ve created something. And now everybody wants to emulate it.”
But what makes the Cubs a potentially powerhouse Face of Baseball ensemble is more than talent, more than just those curses they busted, more than the monstrous TV ratings they put up last October. What is so compelling about the Cubs is that they project such a different vibe than pretty much every other team in the game.
“I feel like he is going to be the Face of Baseball, because he already is that perfect. He’s the guy that makes you sick to your stomach.”
David Ross on Kris Bryant
In a sport that has long suppressed personality, this is a team led by a manager, in Joe Maddon, who encourages it. And by proving they could do that and still win, they’re teaching the rest of their sport a vital lesson.
“No doubt about that,” says Ross, an admittedly far-from-objective witness. “And playing for Joe just solidified what I already thought I knew. You don’t have to fall into the old baseball way — just keep your head down, play hard and keep your mouth shut. You can be a person. You can do stuff off the field. You can enjoy yourself off the field and still bring it on the field.”
And you know what Ross learned from being part of that culture? That when a team expresses that joy — and lets its fans share it — it creates the bond baseball is working to make.
“The people who fall in love with you, the fans, they’re going to love you even more,” Ross says, “because they know who you are. I think that gets lost in a lot of organizations, where it’s just so old school — and ‘this is how we do it here, and it’s either my way or the highway’ — which doesn’t work for everybody. You’re not getting the most out of the person because you’re not letting the person be himself.”
The Cubs think otherwise.
Does baseball need to change?
At the union, Clark is adamant that baseball needs to adjust how it markets its stars. “I think the game plan has simply always been the same,” he says. “I don’t think it’s changed much in regards to the marketing of the game.”
What the union sees is a sport long reluctant to center campaigns on its stars. And Clark laments all the “missed opportunities” to do that. But three MLB officials, none of whom wished to speak on the record, disagree vehemently.
They point to years of TV spots built around dozens of players. They emphasize that one of the biggest reasons MLB just contracted with Under Armour to supply uniforms is that company’s promise to feature players in major ad campaigns. They say MLB has emphasized, with every partner it’s negotiating with, that player-based marketing has to be a key component of every deal.
So in reality, says Bill King, a senior writer at “SportsBusiness Journal,” baseball’s Face of Game problem isn’t about the marketing the sport does on its own, “and I don’t think it ever has been,” he says.
“We talk about what a league does to market,” King says. “To be honest, the resources of a Gatorade or Nike go well beyond the league. The league is really good at reaching the people who are already paying attention. It’s those other brands that are good at getting you out front of people who might only be halfway paying attention.
“You know,” King says, tongue only slightly in cheek, “the NBA didn’t make Michael Jordan. Nike made Michael Jordan.”
But the big shoe companies have never latched on to baseball players at anywhere near that level — for obvious reasons.
“Because kids,” says one baseball official, “don’t wear baseball cleats to school.”
Still, Nike made Trout the first baseball player since Ken Griffey Jr. to have his own name-branded baseball shoes. Adidas just signed Bryant to what ESPN’s Darren Rovell reported was a record-setting shoe deal that will pay him more than $1 million a year. The record Bryant broke was one set by Harper just last year, when he signed a 10-year extension with Under Armour.
So the stars are beginning to line up on the vital sponsorship side of this equation. What this sport needs now, to get back into the Face of Baseball business, is the sort of culture change that will allow the game to give people what sports fans demand in the 21st century — a culture built around players who aren’t afraid to express their personality.
“If you’re signing this big contract and you’re benefiting, you have to try to grow the game. … Other people made it better for you coming in. You need to make it better for the people coming after you and the people who are there with you.”
Bill Sutton, director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida
In the NBA, Tellem says, that’s what David Stern and his successor as commissioner, Adam Silver, have encouraged for years — allowing players to step forward “and take responsibility for the direction of the game.”
“This idea of being accessible to the media, getting players comfortable with speaking to the media, I think that’s something baseball should work with the players on, and draw upon these great examples of the stars in the NBA,” Tellem says. “These are great examples I think that they can learn from and follow, because it has worked. And it really has only helped the NBA’s popularity. And I think it would help baseball tremendously, to get these players out there.”
What baseball officials often say, when they hear these sorts of suggestions, is that baseball players are more available to the media than players in any other sport. But there’s a difference, Tellem says, between being available and feeling free to express their true personalities.
In the NBA, he says, the openness of the biggest stars has always provided a role model for the stars that followed. But in MLB, the model for today’s players couldn’t be more different.
“The greatest stars, for years, haven’t done that,” Tellem says. “The brightest stars in baseball have been very careful about how much they’ve opened themselves up. They’ve been the exact opposite, because they don’t have examples.”
There are ascending stars in their mid-20s everywhere you look in baseball. Yet not one of them found his way into the 50 most popular professional athletes in America. If that’s not a wake-up call, what is?
Baseball needs a Face. It has literally dozens of players who could become that Face. But if it wants that Face to ever approach the stature of a LeBron in modern American culture, that can’t happen unless everyone resolves to commit to that goal in a way this sport never has before.
“There’s no doubt about it,” Bill Sutton says. “The game’s got to change. If you want the game to grow, if you want the game to have a different audience, if you want the game to attract young people, you’ve got to change.”