Even if games go on, MLB lockout could alienate Gen Z
By JAKE SEINER
NEW YORK (AP) Max Scherzer stars in the last video posted to Major League Baseball's TikTok account before the league locked out the players Thursday morning.
The clip, viewed over 400,000 times, shows the final out from Scherzer's first no-hitter in 2015 with Washington, followed by teammates dousing the three-time Cy Young Award winner with chocolate syrup. Hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd's "Swang" plays in the background.
"Max Scherzer is ... officially a New York Met!!!" the caption reads, celebrating Scherzer's $130 million deal to pitch in Queens.
It could be the last post featuring a big league player sent to the account's 4.8 million followers for months, a curveball with real consequences for a sport already concerned about courting young fans.
Even if baseball's first work stoppage in 26 years doesn't result in missed games, the league and its players are at risk of alienating their next wave of fans. Gen Z - loosely defined as those born between 1995 and 2010 - has never experience a baseball lockout or strike. Fan sentiment in previous stoppages was driven primarily by interruptions to the schedule, but for a generation that devours bite-sized entertainment faster than its predecessors, there's potential for lasting damage even if the 2022 regular season starts on time.
For Gen Z, it's all about the content. Suddenly, on social media, MLB doesn't have any featuring stars like Shohei Ohtani or Fernando Tatis Jr.
"This content machine that is kind of going on all cylinders ... that all probably either stops completely or is not anywhere near as active as it was," said Mark Beal, an expert on Gen Z and an assistant professor in the Rutgers University School of Communication.
For Gen Z, he says, it's "out of sight, out of mind."
Raised in an age of ever-present and seemingly boundless options for entertainment, Gen Z has alarmed the sports industry as a whole and baseball in particular with its waning interest. In a survey by Morning Consult published in September of 2020, just 53% of Gen Z respondents claimed to be at least casual sports fans, behind 69% of Millennials, 66% from Gen X and 61% of Boomers.
Only 32% of Gen Z respondents said they were at least a casual fan of MLB - trailing the NFL (49%), the NBA (47%) and esports (35%), among others.
The league has been proactively wooing the demographic since restructuring its marketing department in 2018 - the "Let The Kids Play" campaign came months later. The situation isn't all dire, either. Youth participation in baseball and softball has risen in the past decade, compared to drops for football and soccer.
But this year in particular, MLB made significant gains reaching young fans in the most likely place to find them - TikTok. The league upped its engagement there this summer with a contest to hire help running the official MLB account, and its inaugural 11-member Creator Class was unveiled in September.
The league's follower count has grown 65.5% to 4.8 million since the contest was announced. Beal, who made the keynote address at last year's Major League Baseball Speaker Series, called it a "best-in-sports" engagement tactic for the year.
Now, though, it's unclear what the league can send to those many followers.
To avoid running afoul of federal labor laws during the lockout, MLB has scrubbed images and video highlights of current players from its website. Its old social media posts remain - Mookie Betts making a diving catch, a mic'd up Juan Soto asking Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for an invite to his next house party - but the league won't be posting new content featuring players until the lockout ends.
"There's great momentum there that is building, building, building, and building fandom, too," Beal said. "If that all of a sudden slows down significantly or comes to almost a halt, then I think the Gen Z eyeballs kind of start tuning into, `Well what else is out there?'"
Once they wander off - and the algorithms on TikTok, Instagram and other platforms notice - it may not be so simple to get them back.
"I don't think it's as easy as flicking an on/off switch," Beal said. "I think it's going to take some time to kind of get the audience to shift their content preferences from what they've been tuned into since Dec. 1."
Of course, just because Mike Trout won't appear on the Angels' accounts doesn't mean he won't be on social - the three-time MVP has 1.9 million Instagram followers, most of any big leaguer.
Players can still create their own content, of course, and it only took them a few hours to generate a viral moment after being locked out Thursday. In response to MLB.com replacing player headshots with gray silhouettes, many changed their profile photos on Twitter and elsewhere to the same generic image.
While baseball was shut down at the height of the coronavirus pandemic, players like Blake Snell and Trevor May livestreamed esports as a way of engaging with fans. If the lockout drags on, that may happen again. Notably, the MLB The Show video game has a licensing deal for player name, image and likeness rights that exists outside the CBA, so its spring release won't be affected, the league said.
There's also an unprecedented chance for players to address the discourse surrounding the stoppage.
"Every individual player, whether they chose to or not, does have platforms and channels that didn't exist for players who played in the '80s or '90s, where they can communicate directly with fans," Beal said.
Fans during previous stoppages generally lacked sympathy for millionaire athletes engaged in labor strife, but Gen Z might have more compassion. Social justice movements like Black Lives Matter have shaped their worldview, and they demand that brands provide good takes along with good products.
"Gen Z is the purpose generation," Beal said. "They support companies, brands, organizations, celebrities who demonstrate a higher purpose."
That purpose extends to labor rights, too. Per Gallup polling, 77% of adults age 18-34 are pro-union. Specific to sports, Gen Z athletes have earned unprecedented protections and opportunities in college, including an NCAA rule change allowing them to capitalize financially on their name, image and likeness.
That doesn't guarantee Gen Z will side with labor in a showdown between millionaire athletes and billionaire owners.
"I don't know if there's an opportunity with a lockout to demonstrate purpose," Beal said. "Gen Z is the purpose generation, and what they might ask is, `Well, ultimately, is there a higher purpose to all of this other than just trying to make some more money?'"
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Updated December 3, 2021