Who is the Face of Baseball?

  • Jayson Stark [ARCHIVE]
  • ESPN.com | September 12, 2013

It was just two months ago, right here, that we asked a question which, for commissioner Bud Selig, ought to rank right up there with, "What's the meaning of life itself?"

That question: Who is the Face of Baseball in the summer of 2013?

Well, now we know.

And guess what? It isn't Miguel Cabrera. It isn't Mike Trout. It isn't Bryce Harper. It isn't even the legendary Mariano Rivera.

The Face of Baseball, according to more than 1,000 fans surveyed by our friends at Turnkey Intelligence last month, is a player his sport would rather vaporize than promote.

And by that, of course, we mean the one, the only Alex "Currently Appealing My 211-Game Suspension" Rodriguez.

Beautiful.

Amazingly -- or, then again, maybe not so amazingly -- Alex Rodriguez was the first player named by 22 percent of the 1,028 fans polled by Turnkey when they were asked, with no names and no other info provided: "What MLB player would you define as the 'Face of Baseball' today?"

We'll get into what that means in a moment. But first, you need to know a little more about this survey.

We got such overwhelming response to the Face of Baseball piece in July that we wanted to know more.

We wanted to know not just who is the Face of Baseball right now, but who is most likely to turn into the future Face of Baseball.

We wanted to know whether fans are more likely to watch a game in which their favorite Face of Baseball is playing.

We wanted to know if avid fans feel the same way as casual fans.

We wanted to know whether the American public even believes that baseball needs a Face. Or Faces.

Turnkey, one of America's most prominent sports-polling firms, then worked with us to look into all of these questions, in a survey conducted over three days, from Aug. 20-22. The results were eye-popping. Read on and see if you agree.

The A-Rod factor

How could nearly one in four theoretically normal American sports fans possibly pick A-Rod as the Face of Baseball?

Our theory: Timing was everything. And virtually all of the sports-business authorities we consulted for this piece agreed.

This survey was conducted during a period when A-Rod news was pretty much everywhere, from "SportsCenter" to the "Today" show. You couldn't escape it unless you covered your ears, covered your eyes, canceled your cable subscription, blew up your computer and moved to Borneo.

But it also turned out that the closer you lived to Borneo -- as opposed to a big league ballpark -- the more likely you were to choose A-Rod as The Face. We asked Turnkey's senior vice president, Steve Seiferheld, to break down the data a little more closely. Here's what he found:

• Only 17 percent of fans who lived within 20 miles of a major league stadium picked A-Rod as their Face, compared to 25 percent of those who lived more than 100 miles away.

• But when we split the survey group into self-described "avid" fans versus "casual" fans, we found that casual fans who lived more than 20 miles from a big league stadium were more than twice as likely (30 percent) to choose A-Rod as their Face than avid fans who lived within 20 miles (15 percent).

So clearly, the further removed (literally) you were from baseball's on-the-field action, the more likely you were to be influenced by the off-the-field headlines -- and to pick Guess Who as your No. 1 Face of Baseball.

This makes total sense, says one of America's most highly regarded sports-marketing authorities, Bill Sutton, director of the Sport and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida.

It's those fans "without a real connection to today's players who would be more dependent upon the media for their opinion," he says, "and would choose A-Rod."

But the A-Rod vote may also tell us something else, says Paul Swangard, the esteemed managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon. Namely, it tells us that all the recent coverage of baseball's PED issues has "absorbed so much attention that baseball can't get out from under its own shadow."

So the A-Rod vote leaves us wondering about this fundamental question, says Seiferheld: "Is he the face of baseball or the face of PEDs?" Well, much to the dismay of the sport he continues to play, Alex Rodriguez is clearly a little of both.

Other nuggets: Only 13 players were named by at least 10 fans -- and one of them (Chipper Jones) is retired, while a second one (Babe Ruth) hasn't made a home run trot in 78 years. … Ruth got as many votes (2 percent) as Buster Posey, Joey Votto or Albert Pujols. … 376 players got at least one vote. … And when asked to name the Face of Baseball without being given any names to choose from, 11 percent of those surveyed said, "None."

The Jeter factor

To help turn this conversation in a different direction, Turnkey then gave the same group of fans a list of 29 active players -- a list that did NOT include Alex Rodriguez -- and asked them to choose up to three players they would identify as the Face of Baseball today.

The No. 1 name on their list was a fellow A-Rod may have heard of.

In one of the least surprising revelations in this survey, Derek Jeter not only got the most votes, he got nearly as much support (38 percent) as the next two players combined -- Miguel Cabrera (25) and David Ortiz (17).

But what was more stunning was the lack of consensus for just about anyone.

Only ONE player (Jeter) was named by more than 25 percent of those surveyed? Only TWO players (Jeter and Cabrera) were named by more than 17 percent? Mike Trout got only 16 percent? Bryce Harper got just 9 percent? Names like Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg and Joe Mauer got less than 5 percent? And remember, everyone surveyed could pick up to THREE players, not just one.

Really? Wow. If we fed the same poll question to NFL fans, what percent do you think would name Peyton Manning? Just take a guess.

"With everything he does off the field? Peyton would be 99 percent, maybe 100," says Sutton. "It would have to be almost unanimous."

No kidding. And Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers wouldn't be far behind. Or what if we gave this same survey to NBA fans. Where would LeBron James and Kobe Bryant rank? Not in the 20th or 30th percentile. You can bet on that.

So what does this tell us about baseball? Well, lots of good things, actually, if you consider the sheer number of players who got votes -- but certainly not all good. If transcendent young stars like Trout, Harper, Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado and even Yasiel Puig aren't all over America's radar screen, something has to be amiss. Right?

"This, to me, says these players are not exposed and people don't know them," says Dennis Mannion, now the president and CEO of Palace Sports and Entertainment in Detroit but also a man who has held prominent positions with teams in all four major professional sports (Dodgers, Ravens, Pistons, Avalanche, Nuggets, Phillies). "And that's a problem. It's a big problem."

What's unique about baseball, though, is that this isn't a problem on the local level, because business, from April to September, is tremendous. Millions of people still spin through the turnstiles. And almost every franchise has its own Face, who connects just fine with its own fans.

But where are the Faces who soar above their teams, their markets and their regions into EVERYONE'S consciousness? That's the problem. That's what's missing. Especially when October rolls around.

"You have a lot of players people could choose from in the markets they play," says Swangard. "So if you spliced the data by region, the numbers would spike. The reason this is an issue is that it seems inconsistent with what baseball says it aspires to be -- which is still the national pastime.

"You have a bunch of very good players who seem to have strong regional visibility. But no one seems to rise above that to any degree, to galvanize that regional interest the way a national pastime should. … To really be the national pastime, you can't rely on the sum of regional identities. You need that national star. That's what the NFL does with Peyton. That's what the NBA does with Kobe and LeBron."

And baseball has succeeded in doing that with whom, exactly? This survey tells us the answer, loud and clear: nobody.

Other nuggets: Of the 20 players who got the most mentions in this portion of the survey, just three were pitchers -- Mariano Rivera (12 percent), Justin Verlander (9 percent) and Clayton Kershaw (6 percent). … The top six (and nine of the top 12) all play in the American League. … Five of the top six players named were in their 30s or 40s (all but Trout). … And whatever PED residue fueled the A-Rod surge didn't translate to Ryan Braun. He was named by only 6 percent.

A look into the future

Turnkey then asked the folks in this survey to gaze over the horizon and identify the Face of Baseball five years down the road. We expected them to draw baseball a road map of where the sport was heading and who was driving that bus. Instead, we came away thinking we needed to stop and ask for directions ASAP.

When asked that question with no names to choose from, no player was even named by 9 percent of those surveyed. Trout got the most mentions, with 8 percent. Which made sense. But the next three names on the list -- A-Rod, Jeter and Cabrera -- will be 43, 44 and 35 years old, respectively, by then.

One percent named Babe Ruth, who will have been retired from life as we know it for 70 years in 2018. And an astonishing 25 percent answered, "None."

So Turnkey then asked the same question, but gave fans a list of active players to choose from -- this time including A-Rod. And again, those surveyed could pick up to three names. Under this format, Trout surged to 22 percent, with Harper at 15 and Puig at 14. So at least some semblance of order was restored.

But incredibly, Jeter (and Cabrera) still showed up with 15 percent apiece. And 37-year-old Big Papi was right behind (at 11 percent).

And once again, the theme that rattled through these survey results was this: Even in an age when baseball has produced as many vibrant 25-and-under stars as we've seen in years, fans don't look at any one or two of them and say, "We have seen The Future -- and it looks exactly like (INSERT ICONIC NAME HERE)."

But given the results of the Who's The Face Today polling, maybe we shouldn't be surprised, says Sutton.

"If you're someone who has a hard time deciding who's The Face now," Sutton says, "you would have a harder time deciding who's The Face in five years. Wouldn't you?"

Well, you would if the sport hadn't helped you much on this front. You would if the folks who run baseball hadn't figured out a way to bust through all the tired, age-old, This Is The Way We've Always Done it barriers that have always prevented it from grabbing ahold of shooting stars like Trout and Harper and promoting them the way they deserve to be promoted.

And that, friends, is where this sport is at. Still. And because it is, says Mannion, "there's a pretty fundamental lack of understanding of the talent out there."

One more thing: Incredibly, only 6 percent of the people surveyed nominated three of baseball's brightest young stars -- Machado, Harvey and Andrew McCutchen -- as players they thought would be the Face of Baseball in five years. That's the same percentage that nominated Mariano Rivera, Ichiro Suzuki and Ryan Howard, none of whom figure to even be playing baseball in five years. Does that make sense to anyone out there? Thought so. Just checking.

Avid fans versus casual fans

One of the problems with surveys like this is that they sometimes squish a bunch of very different people into the same jumble of humanity. So Turnkey divided up this group into two categories -- those who said they were avid fans (60 percent) and those who described themselves as casual fans (40 percent) -- and analyzed the data again.

The views of those two groups, naturally, were very different -- but not necessarily in ways you would expect:

• 21 percent of avid fans categorized Trout as their Face of Baseball – compared with only 8 percent of casual fans. No surprise there.
• 28 percent of avid fans put Cabrera on their Face of Baseball list – versus 19 percent of casual fans. No shocker there, either, although we'd have expected his percentage among avid fans would have been much higher than that.
• And as we'd mentioned earlier, casual fans (26 percent) were more likely to identify A-Rod as the Face of Baseball than avid fans (20 percent).

So far, relatively predictable. But here is where we started getting results we didn't see coming:

• We'd have figured that casual fans, not avid fans, were more likely to say that baseball needs a Face of the Game. Nope. Only 58 percent of casual fans thought that -- compared with 72 percent of avid fans.
• And we had almost no doubt that casual fans were more likely to watch a big game if their favorite Face of Baseball was playing in it. Wrong again. Massively wrong. Heck, it wasn't even close. Instead, while 52 percent of avid fans said they would "definitely watch" a postseason game if their Face was on the field, only 11 percent of casual fans said they would. And for a regular-season game, that divide went: 41 percent (avid) to 7 percent (casual). Amazing.

So why did that amaze us? Because our theory, for as long as we can remember, has always been that it's the casual fans who need a player with the nationwide star power of a LeBron or Peyton to get drawn into watching a game they otherwise wouldn't care about. Hmmm. Guess not. Not in this sport, anyway.

Is it possible that's true only of football fans and basketball fans, but not baseball fans? Maybe. That's a topic for another survey, for another time and place. But again, this is telling us something about baseball that we need to pay attention to.

It's very possible it's telling us that the casual baseball fan isn't paying much attention, no matter who's playing -- and that not even the most charismatic player alive could change that. And if that's the message, the alarm sirens should be sounding in Bud Selig's house as we speak.

"My sense, from looking at that data," says Swangard, "is that there's an ambivalence that exists around the game, which corresponds with a theory I teach and that I subscribe to: Sports in the media age is so reliant on the star player. And for the casual fan of baseball, there doesn't seem to be a strong [gravitation] toward any of the current stars. And I think that's kind of a danger sign."

It's also a sign, he says, that baseball is not losing fans "at the core. It's losing at the margins." And if that's the case, what should this sport be doing to reel those folks at the margins back in? That's a critical question, but also a complicated question.

"You don't ever want to run a business by chasing your occasional customers and losing your best customers," says Seiferheld.

So if baseball's best customers are saying, "We want a Face of the Game," the people who run the sport should be listening closely, he says. And after they get to work on that, he says, they need to turn to those casual fans and ask: "What lures YOU in? If it's not these players, what is it?"

Excellent question. In fact, it just might be the definitive question. So let's ask it.

What should baseball do now?

So if you were the almighty marketing czar of Major League Baseball and you'd just read the results of this survey, what would you be doing?

Well, even the people polled by Turnkey weren't sure. They were asked, "If you were in charge of marketing for MLB and could pick one player you wanted to turn into the 'Face of Baseball,' whom would you pick?"

And one more time, we learned they were as divided as ever.

Derek Jeter (16 percent) was the only player named by more than one of every 10 people polled. Just two others -- Trout (9 percent) and Cabrera (8 percent) -- were named by more than one of every 20. Beyond those three, the usual suspects divvied up the rest of the nominations, with no consensus whatsoever.

OK, so what SHOULD baseball do? How should this sport react to the message being sent by the folks who took this survey? These are critical questions to contemplate if baseball is going to carve out its proper niche in the 21st century.

So we posed them to people inside the commissioner's office and the players' association. As was the case with the original Face of Baseball piece from earlier this summer, they were reluctant to be quoted on matters this complex and this sensitive.

But the good news is: We think they get it.

The bad news is: They still can't agree on what to do about it.

They understand how fast the world is changing in an increasingly digital age. But for reasons that are as frustrating as they are understandable, they're having a much more difficult time adapting to the demands of that world than the NFL and NBA.

Why? Because no professional sport in North America is more rooted in its This Is How We've Always Done It mindset than this sport. And that mindset has blown up more brilliant ideas than you could possibly imagine.

So in the words of one person we spoke with, for baseball to get to a place where it could start promoting its biggest stars the way the other sports do would require "a seismic philosophical shift" in the culture of the entire sport. And good luck with that.

We discussed that culture in great detail in the original Face of Baseball opus. If you missed it then, feel free to go back and read all about it . But suffice it to say this won't be easy.

The culture of the clubhouse is a powerful force that works against any player who seems to be getting more attention than the guy at the next locker.

The culture inside front offices is just as powerful a force for making sure the marketing department knows it's supposed to be pushing the uniform, not the people who wear it.

And players still believe their sport doesn't promote its stars the way the other sports do because it's afraid to go down that star-power trail in the post-McGwire/Sosa/Bonds era.

OK, whatever. We get all the reasons out there NOT to change. But if they're not taking a long, serious look at what this survey is telling them about their game, they're making a big mistake.

"If I were them," says Swangard, "I would take this data and use it. I'd convene a conversation with the union, with teams and ultimately with players about what this means. The message is clear: The league needs to invest in these players, in a way that affords them the opportunity to build their own brands."

But the message is clear in another way, too: There's no reason to create just ONE Face of Baseball. Why can't it be a group of faces? Young and old. East, West and Midwest. Men who throw the baseball and men who hit it. There's room for several faces -- not just Derek Jeter. Or A-Rod.

"I think this survey tells us the game is not perceived as a one-person game," says Bill Sutton. "I think that's a good thing, and here's why: I think you can have a strong feeling for more people and root for more people, especially in baseball.

"Of all the sports, there are more shapes and sizes in baseball, and that lets more people bubble to the top. Baseball lets us define, more or less, who we want our heroes to be. And our heroes can be more than one guy."

But to define those heroes, the powers that be need to accept The Way Life Is Now, and let go of The Way Life Was In 1927. And they need to accept that now.

"You know that whole thing you always hear in baseball, that it's not about the names on the back of the jersey, it's about the names on the front?" laughed Dennis Mannion, a man who has viewed the culture of this sport from the inside and the outside. "I think that's changed."

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