A-Rod: Content is king
by Jonathan Rest
Alex Rodriguez is one of the biggest names in the history of Major League Baseball. He tells Sportcal Insight about his vision for the sport amid the battle for consumers' attention Author
12th December 2018, 16:18

In a sport drowning in numbers, it seems fitting to describe A-Rod, as he's better known, as a 14-time All-Star, who ranks fourth all-time highest in home runs and recipient of three American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Awards, 10 Silver Slugger Awards, given annually to the best offensive player at each position, and two Gold Glove Awards, awarded annually to the best fielder in each position.

So when he talks - which he does for a living now as an analyst and commentator with MLB domestic rights-holders Fox and ESPN - adminstrators, players and fans sit up and take note.

More than two years on from his last appearance on the diamond, the New York Yankees icon finds himself on the soccer turf at the London Stadium, home to the Premier League's West Ham United, and for one weekend in June next year, MLB's newest ballpark.

Rodriguez is on official league business, having been chosen by MLB to sell baseball to UK sports fans ahead of the Yankees' 29 and 30 June double-header against World Series champions the Boston Red Sox in the capital (the tickets went on sale last week via mlb.com/londonseries).

However, the 43-year-old believes it is time the MLB better sells itself in its home market, calling on league officials to “open up the floodgates” in a bid to attract the next generation of fans, boost attendances and make baseball the number one sport in America again.


"What people think is our biggest weakness, I’d turn it into our biggest strength. You have 200 games, which is 200 days, and in a world where content is king, we should be kings among kings"

Alex Rodriguez  

 

Average attendance for regular-season games in 2018 fell by 4 per cent from the previous year to 28,830 per game, according to MLB, while the total number of fans at the ballpark fell below 70 million for the first time since 2003.

While inclement weather in the early months of the season played a part in that drop, so did the average length of the games, which clocked in at three hours or more for the seventh consecutive year, and a dearth of star names in its ranks.

Even the season-ending World Series between two well-known teams from major markets, the Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers, was not the ratings winner many predicted – the five games it took the Red Sox to win the best-of-seven series averaged 14.3 million viewers, down 23 per cent on 2017.

At November's Mitel & MLB Present London Series 2019 launch event in the London Stadium, formerly the Olympic Stadium, Sportcal Insight asks Rodriguez what he would change about the sport he fell in love with some three decades ago while watching his hero Cal Ripkin of the Baltimore Orioles "catching 100 backhands during a spring training camp in St Petersburg," Florida.

Before the question is even completed, Rodriguez jumps in: “I’d open up the floodgates, both online and in the ballpark. What people think is our biggest weakness, I’d turn it into our biggest strength. You have 200 games, which is 200 days, and in a world where content is king, we should be kings among kings. 

“The world for our children lives here," Rodriguez continues, pointing to his mobile phone. "If you think about Aaron Judge or Mike Trout [of the Yankees and Dodgers, respectively, and two of the league’s biggest names] and you have an app that every time after school you could press and you’ll have 30 batting cages that are all live, that are open between 4pm to 7pm, which is game time, and you can see what every player does routine-wise... The teams will work with you and say Aaron Judge is going on at 4.25pm, Mike Trout is going on at 4.28pm. I would be glued to this thing. 

“Aaron Judge may only get to hit one or two balls in a three-hour game. Well, here you get to see him have 30 or 40 swings in a row. I would just create this content pool that the next generation is starving for. The more access we give them, the more players we mike up, the more things we get to see behind the scenes, in the training room, in the weight room. That is the journey, the process that will get the kids back, not the game. The game is not enough on its own.” 

The New York Yankees' Aaron Judge: one of the few superstar names in Major League Baseball
 

And for the match-going fans, I ask?

“If I save all my money as a family to take my kids to a game and I get to go to Yankee Stadium and they open the gates just late enough where I miss Aaron Judge hit, I would not know what to do,” Rodriguez says (he appears genuinely annoyed by the prospect, even in such a hypothetical situation)“The idea is to open it up as early as possible, let the kids come in early. Let them watch batting practice, catching practice. It’s art. If the kids don’t get to watch that, we are all missing out.” 

At the turn of the year, a poll by US research company Gallup placed MLB as the third in line among USA's favourite spectator sports, behind NFL American football and NBA basketball. But the 9 per cent that cited baseball was the lowest percentage for the sport since Gallup first asked the question in 1937. The NFL claimed the top spot in 1972 and has been the public's favourite ever since, albeit the NBA has been growing in popularity.

Rodriguez retired in 2016, and yet, to passing fans of the sport, is one of the few instantly recognisable names.

His fame transcends baseball, even sport: a much-publicised season-long doping suspension served in 2014 probably helped, but so too did the celebrity lifestyle. During his career, Rodriguez dated a stream of Hollywood A-Listers (Madonna, Kate Hudson and Cameron Diaz spring to mind), and he is now in a relationship with Jennifer Lopez.

That cross-cultural celebrity helps to sell a sport, and they are few and far between in MLB at present.

Now, Rodriguez is not calling on his former colleagues to live out their personal lives in full public view. Instead, he thinks the league needs to do a better job of promoting its stars, and believes that in commissioner Robert Manfred, whose contract was recently renewed to 2024, and chief operating officer Tom Petitti, the future is bright.


As you move the game forward, we have some of the best players under the age of 28 than ever before. We have to lead with our best players and start story-telling  

 

Rodriguez continues: “To a degree we have a new administration. Rob and Tom are great leaders and forward thinkers. We have to give them the opportunity... Having Rob on board now to 2024 is great for our game on a domestic and international level.

“As you move the game forward, we have some of the best players under the age of 28 than ever before. We have to lead with our best players and start story-telling. Not only are they very talented, but they are good people from diverse and interesting backgrounds.

“If you take Aaron Judge, he’s this beautiful man, who’s big and strong and smart… If you can’t sell him, you not going to be able to sell anyone.

“The key is, there are so many great players that need to come to the forefront and I think this administration will do a better job of doing that.”

As for MLB’s London debut, Rodriguez is confident the spectacle alone will do the sport justice.

“The fact that we are leading with Yankees-Red Sox immediately grabs everybody’s attention,” he notes. “If you look at the logo of the Yankees, everywhere I travel around the world, I see that logo. It is one of the most famous logos on the planet.

“And we’re going to come across the pond with the world champions in the Red Sox, the manager of the year in Alex Cora, the American League MVP in Mookie Betts [both Red Sox] and the world’s most popular baseball player and superhero in Aaron Judge. 

“This guy is 280lbs, he’s six feet seven - he comes right out of Game of Thrones - he’s under 10 per cent body fat and he has an over 30-inch vertical jump. He will make baseballs look like golf balls. 

Red Sox-Yankees: one of the most storied rivalries in US sport
 

“When you have your greatest players in any sport, whether it’s LeBron James and Michael Jordan in basketball or Tom Brady in football, you always want to lead with your best and MLB is doing that.

“These are two titans. It is Goliath versus Goliath.”

Sportcal