Baseball analytics has become a staple of Major League Baseball over the last decade. The analytics movement can be seen on broadcasts, in newspaper and internet articles and, of course, at the Sabermetrics, Scouting, and the Science of Baseball conference. Jimmy Wulf gives us part three of his 2015 SaberSeminar Recap.
Did you miss the 5th Annual Sabermetrics, Scouting and the Science of Baseball Seminar benefiting the Jimmy Fund? Don’t miss Part One (with Curt Schilling, Ben Cherington, and Tom Tippett) and Part Two (Baseball Ops panels from the Royals and Red Sox) of my rolling recaps for SoS.com. Then dive into Part Three below, where we explore media in all its forms.
Sunday 10:00 A.M. – Andy McCullough, Jen McCaffrey, Dave Cameron, Alex Speier
The seminar’s media panel presented a cross-section of views covering baseball from the big-market, mid-market, and national perspectives. Alex Speier from the Globe and Jen McCaffrey from masslive.com represented the Boston beat, Andy McCullough from the Kansas City Star was in town with the Royals, and Dave Cameron of Fangraphs joined them, mostly to take abuse for his few well-publicized prediction misses.
The biggest change in sports coverage today is Twitter, and all the writers had strong opinions on the medium. McCullough has been noted for his success in engaging with his readers via in-game tweeting, and described his approach as “just trying to have fun with it. Be professional, provide information. I think I’m able to differentiate in tone between when I’m being serious or joking.” McCaffrey of Masslive alluded to“not the nicest things” being said to her on social media, while still acknowledging the tool’s usefulness for getting instant feedback and discovering new ideas.
Cameron admitted that with his national stage at Fangraphs and prominence as a prognosticator, he was predestined to have a negative opinion of Twitter. While he made an attempt to agree with McCaffrey’s view of its value, he called it a “necessary evil” and admitted the day he retires he’s likely to throw a “Goodbye Twitter party”. Across the board, they felt unfairly judged against a hard 140-character limit and couldn’t comprehend the level of raw hostility that they sometimes encounter.
The beat writers also tackled the realities of working in an industry which appears to be slowly dying. Both Speier and McCullough pinpointed the core problem of print circulation revenue driving content choices, the aging demographic of that audience, and their inability to monetize any of their more modern content streams.
Discussing the archaic quick-recap write-up (or “gamer”), Andy deployed some Schilling-like bluntness: “Look, here’s the problem. The KC Star had a 150,000 circulation today. Most of those people who get that paper want to read a traditional game story, and paid money for it. I don’t want to write it every night, but the people who spend money on our product want something that doesn’t have much of a future.” Alex and Jen both stressed the evolving nature of the gamer, how it’s up to the writer to provide new and unique information in every piece, not just the minimum information.
One challenge to providing unique information may be an upcoming loss of locker room access (already reduced in the last CBA). Speier, McCaffrey and McCullough all seemed significantly concerned with the impact of this, stressing that being able to learn the dynamics and beats of a clubhouse are essential to being able to develop a rapport with people on and around the team.
Sunday 9:00 A.M. – Wendy Thurm
Before the agenda dove into heavy topics and analytics, Fangraphs’ Wendy Thurm eased the crowd into Sunday with an engaging Madison Avenue-esque review of the current demographic trends around MLB’s fan engagement and media presence.
Wendy highlighted three major problematic trends facing baseball today: Fans are too old (54% are age 51 or over), too white (83%!!), and youth participation rates are down across the board. There’s some good news in that MLB is well aware of the need to address these issues. One example of their proactive approach is the Play Ball initiative which invests in urban youth baseball, and this year debuted a highly effective youth-targeted marketing program highlighting MLB’s brightest young stars. But as Thurm demonstrated, by contrasting the overall growth of urban Hispanic and Asian demographics (two of the fastest-growing segments of the U.S. population) with the lack of success MLB has had in gaining new fans among those groups, there’s clearly more work to be done.
Other parts of the presentation included a review of things MLB has been doing well – MLBAM’s At-Bat application has over 5 million downloads – and not so well: MLB gets kicked sideways by the NFL and the NBA in social media engagement. Wendy was quick to connect this to both baseball’s age demographic problem and their possible over-commitment to At-Bat at the cost of suppressing the viral potential of video highlights.
Whether trying to create content for new media or marketing your product through it, the landscape is no different today than what’s facing baseball ops departments ‒ rapid and confusing change set against seemingly eternal headaches, with more information than answers anywhere one looks.