PHOENIX – Throughout baseball’s online fan community, Jimmy O’ Brien (aka @Jomboy), Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) and other notable social media personalities have reignited baseball’s cultural relevance and rekindled interest in the game among casual fans. Their work is a form of grassroots marketing that promotes baseball to a sizable audience of young, digitally savvy adults who might not otherwise pay attention to the sport.
Considering Major League Baseball’s concerns about declining attendance and its aging fanbase, some have found it surprising that MLB has not taken full advantage of what many deem to be an untapped market for entertaining baseball content. To its credit, MLB has made efforts in the last few years to attract more young people in the game.
Marketing campaigns such as Players’ Weekend and the “Field of Dreams” themed game that will take place in Iowa during the 2020 season aim to make the game more fun and appealing to the younger audiences MLB wants to target. Alongside these fan engagement campaigns, MLB restructured and modernized its marketing operations in 2018 and introduced new gameplay measures, such as limiting the number of mound visits allowed over nine innings, to expedite the game’s pace of play.
It saw a need. MLB attendance has dropped 7% since 2015 and in 2018 dropped below 70 million for the first time in 15 years. The Arizona Diamondbacks last surpassed an average of 28,000 fans at home in 2008 after doing it each of their first seven seasons.
Although it’s difficult to discern how effective MLB’s efforts are when it comes to engaging a more diverse and younger audience, the league’s efforts to grow the game appear in contrast to the potential social media personalities like Jomboy and PitchingNinja have to get casual fans and young people interested.
Leveraging his video editing skills, humor and uncanny ability to read lips, O’Brien publishes short videos on YouTube that illuminate and provide a running commentary on the many interactions which unfold among players, coaches and umpires over the course of a baseball game.
Because Jomboy’s videos highlight absurd and entertaining moments that happen in baseball, they also demonstrate to budding and would-be baseball fans why the game’s intricacies and choreography are so fascinating.
“Baseball is a sport where the box score doesn’t really reveal anything about the story of the game,” O’ Brien said. “That’s why you have to tune in every day to really understand, ‘How the hell did that (play) really happen?’ ”
O’Brien’s prominence in the baseball world recently surged after he produced a step-by-step video explainer that depicts how the Houston Astros engaged in sign stealing during the 2017 season. “Astros using cameras to steal signs, a breakdown” elicited the ire of Astros fans as the video breakdown spread and went viral on Twitter.
As Marc Carig reported in The Athletic, Jomboy Media’s unpacking of the Astros’ sign stealing scheme took O’Brien less than 30 minutes to create and O’Brien disseminated the video on Twitter shortly after Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich broke their story about the alleged sign stealing.
In essence, O’Brien delivered a video clip to fans that complemented and visualized Rosenthal and Drellich’s reporting.
While it’s difficult to quantify the impact of O’Brien’s work beyond his social media following, anecdotal evidence suggests his videos draw the interest of casual sports fans who wouldn’t otherwise pay attention to baseball. A number of people who participated in O’Brien’s recent “Ask Me Anything” (AMA) forum on Reddit expressed sentiments along these lines.
“If you had told me a year ago I’d be eagerly consuming every YouTube video from a rabid Yankee fan with a backwards baseball cap, I’d have called you crazy,” one Mets fan and redditor wrote.
Another redditor who participated in the AMA told O’Brien that she watches his video breakdowns with her family and explained how his work has brought them all closer together.
“I’ve shared your videos with my dad, and every time I go home we have lots of laughs,” she wrote in the AMA. “You may not know it, but your content helps people bond. Just wanted to say thanks.”
Jake Mintz, co-host of MLB LIVE whip-around show “ChangeUp” on DAZN, a sports streaming service, and one half of the popular @CespedesBBQ Twitter account, believes O’Brien’s ability to engage casual sports fans is the difference.
“If you’re like Jomboy, and you speak about something with passion and energy, and you can explain it well, it will be interesting, even for people who don’t watch as much baseball,” Mintz said.
Both Mintz and O’Brien believe that creating and sharing entertaining content is an effective way to attract people to baseball, especially those who didn’t grow up with the game.
“Every sport needs casual fans to survive,” O’Brien said. “And then I think, once you get casual fans’ eyes on the screen, isn’t it better to explain baseball in a fun way that doesn’t make it sound like school?”
Friedman, an Atlanta-based attorney better known to baseball fans by his Twitter alias PitchingNinja, is another content creator born of baseball internet’s subculture. As a student of pitching mechanics, Friedman edits short video snippets from MLB games and, using slow motion, analyzes the technique a particular pitcher used to execute what he refers to as a “filthy” or “nasty” pitch.
His videos and GIF archive reveal how complex the craft of pitching is. His work also conveys how impressive MLB pitchers are for their ability to make a baseball move the way they do.
2019 Filthy Changeups pic.twitter.com/xsd4YBb8e3
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) November 11, 2019
By April 2018, Friedman’s account had amassed about 50,000 followers when Kevin Clancy at Barstool Sports made MLB aware of PitchingNinja’s work, which, in Clancy’s opinion, violated the league’s exclusive copyright to video and audio footage from its game broadcasts. MLB filed a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint with Twitter, and Twitter temporarily suspended Friedman’s account (it would eventually be reinstated).
“They contacted Twitter and got my account banned, and then everybody got all pissed off,” Friedman said. “But MLB actually did appreciate what I was doing. They just did what they’re supposed to do and enforced their copyrights at that point.”
Friedman’s large following on Twitter includes a handful of MLB pitchers who regularly reach out to him. Friedman’s temporary Twitter suspension irked many of them who regard Friedman’s work as a resource for learning or examining their mechanics.
“That happens regularly. Literally all the time,” Friedman said, when asked if players ever get in touch with him. “Marcus Stroman was recently talking about how I helped him with his changeup, for example. If you go to Colin McHugh’s pinned tweet you’ll see he picked up a few pointers from some of my tweets (detailing the mechanics of Pirates pitcher) Kyle Crick’s slider.”
Players also contact Friedman to request his take on a curveball they hung over the plate, or a pitch thrown by an opposing pitcher that was particularly confounding.
“One time a pitcher, who will remain nameless, DM’ed me to say his teammate’s swing looked out of whack and that I needed to capture it,” Friedman said. “This was during a game. Like, in the middle of a game he was playing in.”
Within the context of how MLB enforces its copyright to video footage, Friedman draws a distinction between those who create or share content for fun and those who monetize their work. He pointed out that it was relatively easy for MLB to arrange a partnership with him as a contractor because he was not profiting from his PitchingNinja work. He said O’ Brien’s Jomboy Media videos (the bulk of which MLB retroactively claimed copyright) may present a more complicated situation for the league because his breakdown videos generate ad revenue.
“Most of what I was doing was trying to explain the game to folks and trying to teach, so that would be more in the fair use arena,” Friedman said. “At the time my take on it was, I’m not monetizing it. I’m not putting ads up. I think it gets dicier if you’re trying to make money off (MLB’s) content and they’re not getting any of it.”
Did the negative reaction from players and fans to PitchingNinja’s suspension from Twitter serve as a wake-up call to MLB? No MLB employee could explicitly confirm if Friedman’s suspension represented a turning point in MLB’s content sharing policies. But a closer look at the league’s behavior on social media suggests that following the public outcry of PitchingNinja’s Twitter suspension, MLB relaxed its policies toward those who share MLB’s copyrighted material and broadcasts on social channels.
An MLB employee with knowledge of the league’s social and copyright enforcement priorities acknowledged in a statement that the league in recent years has adjusted its content sharing policies in tandem with the changing media landscape.
“MLB has evolved in its approach to fan content sharing, while recognizing an important distinction between short-form content created by fans to amplify their excitement and unlicensed content being monetized for personal gain in the absence of a league business relationship,” the statement said.
MLB’s marketing campaigns to cultivate fandom among younger demographics are in the right spirit, Friedman said, but the league’s efforts probably don’t go far enough and they seem too manufactured at times. Moreover, by focusing on rules governing pitching changes and pace of play, the league runs the risk of changing the sport too much.
“They’re trying to solve the symptoms without solving the main problem,” Friedman said. “And I think the main problem is (MLB’s) inability to understand the players and relate to them. Kids don’t want to play a boring sport where they can’t show emotions and have to be robots.”
Mintz echoed Friedman’s belief that baseball needs a touch of levity to attract the interest of casual fans. The entertainment Cespedes Family BBQ provides, Mintz said, is centered around those fun aspects of the fan experience.
“If you’re a fan, a neutral fan, then what are you rooting for at any given moment? That is something we talk about a lot,” Mintz said. “The word I always use is joy.”
So, what do fans get out of Cespedes Family BBQ content, or Jake Mintz’s and Jordan Shusterman’s new DAZN show, that they wouldn’t get from other pre- or post-game entertainment?
“Baseball is fun. Jordan and I are good at emphasizing and finding and pulling the joy out of the games for people to enjoy,” Mintz said. “We’re not going to break (gameplay) down in the traditional sense. We’re not going to examine swing mechanics, or discuss what such-and-such game means for this or that ball club.”
When it comes to sharing content, there are times when MLB still loses sight of the big picture by trying to be too protective over their copyrights, Friedman believes.
“You can always protect your rights and not let anybody do anything,” Friedman said. “You can also let the sport die by not letting people talk about it and learn about it and share exciting stuff.”
From Friedman’s perspective, it’s in the league’s best interest to let fans share and use game highlights, so long as those fans aren’t trying to make money off the content. Does the league grasp the value in this kind of fan engagement? Friedman seems to think so, in spite of MLB’s penchant for issuing DMCA notices.
“If you’re posting select highlights to teach or show something, then I think they understand it is good for baseball,” Friedman said. “In the end (MLB’s) revenue stream is more protected by letting folks get highlights out on social media.”
That MLB forged a partnership with Friedman and eventually hired Jake Mintz of Cespedes Family BBQ] to work for MLB.com’s Cut4 vertical suggests the league recognizes the value of their content.
In a written statement, MLB Senior Vice President of Marketing Barbara McHugh conveyed that sharing and distributing content is fundamental to the league’s marketing efforts.
“We believe that publishing a variety of eye-catching, custom content is most attractive to our fans online,” McHugh said in the statement. “We also think there should be a home for the more unique side of our game, on and off the field, which is where Cut4 comes in. Jake and Jordan have been a great voice to complement our core social channels and to fit a unique audience.”
Yet, although MLB has relaxed some of its content sharing policies in recent years, its gambits to control unlicensed distribution of game footage have not ceased completely. MLB’s behavior surrounding copyright enforcement indicates it continues to view content creators who monetize their work as competitors, rather than as complementary marketing platforms.
Representatives from MLB’s legal department and YouTube’s sports partnerships declined to comment on this story.
O’Brien recently took to Twitter to express his frustration that MLB continues to retroactively claim copyright on Jomboy Media videos published on YouTube. While O’Brien said he believes it is within MLB’s rights to issue DMCA takedowns of his (O’Brien’s) material, he doesn’t think the league is acting in its best interest when it treats published content in this way.
“The point isn’t that they’re wrong or being bullies, the point is that they’re dumb for not seeing us as free marketing,” O’Brien tweeted. “I get the copyright, but this is just another in a long line of actions where MLB makes its content that much more inaccessible to the audience it directly needs to capture.”
Anddd here we go pic.twitter.com/Uzv8c8TPRr
— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) November 27, 2019
MLB wants its game content to be widely distributed across all mediums and platforms, according to the written statement from a person familiar with MLB’s social media strategy, but many believe the league comes across as conflicted about its marketing priorities when content creators like O’Brien make money off their work using unlicensed game footage.
Put simply, whenever MLB issues DMCA notices to O’Brien, is the league prioritizing a very small fraction of its revenue stream over the long-term growth of baseball?
MLB is entitled to this small portion of revenue. But many wonder if the league is acting in its best interest by claiming a relatively small amount of money at the expense of a third-party marketer promoting the game for free.