The KC Royals shocked the baseball world 30 years ago by drafting, and then managing to sign, outfielder Bo Jackson after he won the Heisman Trophy playing football at Auburn. Today, major league baseball is in dire need of a player that transcends the game to become a pop-culture icon.
Baseball has a big problem.
Forget about the gleaming stadiums, the multi-billion dollar TV contracts, and the unheard-of local ratings for our very own Kansas City Royals. The long-term future of the game needs to address one big shortcoming: it’s players rarely get recognized outside their local market.
Fox sports analyst Ken Rosenthal recently wrote a piece about this phenomenon citing former KC Royals pitcher Zack Greinke:
"After meeting with the Giants last offseason, Zack Greinke took a walk to explore San Francisco.No one recognized him, according to people who were in contact with him that day.Think about that: Greinke, then a free agent, soon would receive the highest average salary of any pitcher in major-league history. Yet he went unnoticed in a city where fans should have been quite familiar with him, considering that he had spent the previous three seasons with the Giants’ biggest rival, the Dodgers."
According to Rosenthal, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is discussing the issue with the MLB players union in talks connected to the new collective bargaining agreement—with the idea that an increased emphasis on showcasing their stars in media promotions can solve the problem.
However, that brings up a chicken and the egg question: is it the promotion that makes a player transcend the game, or is it the player who makes a splash that creates the advertising campaign?
Heck, Rodgers is the one that really shows how far baseball lags behind in cultural consciousness.. Rodgers plays in a tiny market in Green Bay, yet has enough national recognition factor carry the “discount double check” series of car insurance commercials. So much for the excuse that the KC Royals play in too small of a market to give birth to a pop-culture sensation.
Yeah, Aaron Rodgers led his team to the Super Bowl. But notice that none of the small-market KC Royals are carrying a national ad campaign after a record-breaking eight late-inning comebacks in the playoffs that included stealing two narrow victories over the Mets to take the World Series in the media capital that is New York City.
Eric Hosmer is the best clutch hitter in baseball, whose mad dash to steal a run is sure to become a baseball icon, has the most telegenic girlfriend in Kacie McDonnell that an athlete can have, and has set a KC Royals record with his clutch hits in the playoffs. KC Royals first baseman Hosmer is living the DREAM.
And Madison Avenue has pretty much yawned.
Throw in the unprecedented wave of young talent in baseball that includes Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and phenom-of-the-moment Trevor Story, and you begin to notice a disturbing pattern. No matter what a baseball player achieves, the larger public knows little of them beyond their names and some numbers.
Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers, NBA stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, and golfer Tiger Woods are personalities whose private lives are well known to people who aren’t sports fans.
What baseball player can really say the same thing?
Thirty years ago, Bo Jackson captured the public imagination by show-casing Herculean athletic gifts while playing both major-league baseball with the KC Royals and football with the NFL’s Oakland Raiders.
Right now, the average baseball TV viewer is over 50. Baseball has failed to connect with the young in this age of social media, despite a game pace ripe for real-time interactions with fans. This generation needs to find someone that transcends the game like the KC Royals did with Bo Jackson in the late 80’s.
Or the next generation might barely exist.