“It was like getting the call to play in the big leagues,” SC&I faculty member Mark Beal said, remembering the day he received a call from John Tierney, a senior director at Major League Baseball, asking Beal if he would like to give the keynote address during the World Series for the league’s prestigious “Major League Baseball Speaker Series.”
“I was honored to receive the call from Major League Baseball,” Beal said. “It is the oldest of the major professional sports leagues in North America, so it presented an opportunity to deliver my Gen Z keynote speech to an iconic brand.”
Beal, who is an assistant professor of professional practice in the SC&I Communication Department, delivered his keynote virtually via zoom in between games 5 and 6 of the World Series on October 26 to more than 100 Major League Baseball executives and all 30 teams. Even if the World Series had culminated with the fifth game, Beal said, they still planned to have him speak because his keynote was part of the speaker series. “For me, it was extra special that it took place during the World Series,” Beal said. The title of his presentation was “Engaging Gen Z With Purpose Will Set Major League Baseball Up for Success in the Future.”
“Major League Baseball is strategic in that they host keynote speeches from business executives, authors, coaches, and others throughout the year as part of their Major League Baseball Speaker Series, not just during the World Series. The speaker’s series presents an opportunity for executives from the league and all 30 teams to gain access to thought leaders outside of baseball who will inspire them in a way they never considered,” Beal said.
Tierney, who did not know Beal when he first called him, invited Beal to speak because of his expertise on Generation Z. Tierney had read “Don’t Press Pause On Engaging Gen Z During The Pandemic,” a column Beal wrote for Sports Business Daily in August, and thought it would be a brilliant idea to ask Beal to speak about how Major League Baseball can better capture Gen Z’s attention and develop them into long-term, enthusiastic baseball fans.
“Only 53% of Gen Z identify as sports fans, compared to 69% of millennials and 63% of adults,” Beal told MLB, based upon a recent survey he’d read that was communicated widely and recently spread concern throughout the sports industry. Beal said this data did not surprise him, because his research on Gen Z has shown that this generation is “rewriting the rules” for sports as well as other businesses. How can sports gain more Gen Z fans? “It’s time to move from marketing to engaging,” Beal said.
“Generation Z is unlike any generation prior,” Beal told MLB. “They do not consume traditional media and they are not going to sit and watch a three-hour telecast of a baseball game. With that, Major League Baseball and each of the 30 teams needs to proactively and strategically collaborate with Gen Zers by establishing Gen Z incubators at the league and team levels. They need to formally invite Gen Zers into the board room to connect and collaborate. If Major League Baseball and any other corporation or organization does that in 2021, they will effectively engage this important generation now and for many years to come.”
To prepare for the keynote, Beal said he fielded a nationwide survey of Gen Zers, ages 13-23, two weeks before giving his keynote, and included questions specifically for Major League Baseball. “That survey revealed that only 15 percent of Gen Zers consider themselves fans of Major League Baseball compared to 27 percent and 25 percent who claim they are fans of college football and college basketball respectively. Major League Baseball also trails the National Football League (24%), National Basketball Association (20%) and Esports (16%), so it critically important that they begin to understand and engage Gen Z now.
“I also surveyed Gen Zers regarding how a sports league or team can engage them to become bigger fans. Overwhelmingly, 42 percent of Gen Zers said leagues and teams need to produce and distribute significantly more content on the media channels they consume including Instagram, YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok. Nearly a third, 27 percent, recommended that sports leagues offer unique access and experiences, even virtual ones, and the same amount, 27%, proposed to professional sports leagues and teams that they develop and establish their own proprietary Gen Z think tank to inspire and inform relevant and engaging content and campaigns to engage Gen Z. The National Hockey League has already taken this smart and strategic step to engage future hockey fans.”
While some of the news Beal shared about Gen Z and baseball in his keynote might have been surprising and dismaying to his audience, Beal said he received messages via LinkedIn from league and team executives thanking him for sharing his insights and for his recommendations, mentioning they plan to apply them starting with the 2021 season.
“Whenever I present my Gen research, insights, and applications to a group,” Beal said, “whether a professional sports league, a Fortune 100 corporation, or a non-profit charity, I consistently receive the reaction that the audience was inspired. They will tell me things like, ‘I had many lightbulb moments during your speech.’ I love hearing that feedback, but they now need to act on those lightbulb moments and take action to engage the next most important consumer segment for many organizations.”
The opportunity to speak to Major League Baseball was particularly special to him, Beal said, because he played baseball for years and has always been a fan. “I was born in The Bronx and attended games at Yankee Stadium starting at the age of four, so I have always had a passion for baseball as a fan and greatly enjoyed playing competitively until the age of 13. I had also been immersed in account teams when I was full-time at my public relations agency, Taylor, where we developed and executed award-winning activation campaigns for such Major League Baseball sponsors as Taco Bell, Ameriquest and Gillette.”
In the past, Beal noted, the Major League Baseball Speaker Series has featured noteworthy speakers including Val Ackerman, the founding president of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the current commissioner of the Big East Conference; Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Jackie Robinson, and an author and educational consultant; Steve, McClatchy, the author of The New York Times bestseller, “Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress & Lead By Example”; and Kara Lawson, the Duke University head women’s basketball coach.