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Major League Baseball is rising — so who is the face?


The past few years have seen many takes written about the supposed decline in popularity of pro baseball.

But last year’s World Series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians was the most watched World Series in 12 years. And the thrilling Game 7 was the most watched single game in 25 years.

“We had storylines in the postseason that kept audiences with baseball even after their individual team was out,” said Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred at Yahoo Finance’s All Markets Summit last February. He called the excitement around the 2016 World Series a “reaffirmation of the fundamental strength of our game,” and added, “Hopefully we’ll be able to recreate it again.”

To recreate it, MLB could use another exciting matchup of two passionate fan bases that haven’t won in years. Of the eight teams left standing, four qualify: the Washington Nationals have never been to the World Series; the LA Dodgers last made it in 1988 and won; the Arizona Diamondbacks went in 2001 and won; and the Houston Astros last made it in 2005 and got swept.

That leaves the Red Sox and Yankees, who have had recent success but still have two of the largest fan bases in baseball, so MLB would be happy to have them stick around, and the Cubs and Indians — a simple rematch, most believe, would also do the trick in duplicating last year’s World Series ratings success.

MLB, which hit the $10 billion revenue mark last year (for comparison: NBA is at $8 billion, NFL $14 billion), could also use a single transcendent star player to represent the sport in America, even if unofficially.

For years, most agree, that was Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, until he retired in 2014.

So, who is that star in 2017?

Many believe the new “face of baseball” is Yankees rookie Aaron Judge. He’s a 6-foot-7 slugger who set a new rookie home run record this year with 52 homers. And Judge had the No. 1 bestselling jersey of the season.

But casual sports fans, who don’t follow baseball religiously, arguably still don’t know about Judge. And the face of a sport needs to be someone nationally known, even to casual sports fans that don’t start paying attention to baseball until the postseason.

There’s a case to be made for someone (or someones) else. Below, we examine some candidates.

[This debate was the topic of a recent Yahoo Finance Presents podcast; you can listen on iTunes or scroll to the bottom of this post.]

L-R: Aaron Judge of the Yankees; Mike Trout of the Angels; Javier Baez of the Cubs. (AP; Getty; AP)
L-R: Aaron Judge of the Yankees; Mike Trout of the Angels; Javier Baez of the Cubs. (AP; Getty; AP)

The case for (and against) Aaron Judge

Judge, who hit the longest homer of the year and the hardest-hit homer of the year according to MLB Statcast, is clearly the most exciting player on the field — if you like home runs. And you might ask: Who doesn’t?

But this season has brought a baseball controversy: too many home runs. (In June, the league set a new single-month home run record.) Many baseball onlookers believe the balls have been “juiced,” meaning wound tighter to make them pop. Many players believe it, too. MLB released a statement on the issue that NBC Sports baseball writer Craig Calcaterra called “disingenuous.”

There’s another problem with Judge: he isn’t particularly charismatic. The concept of the “face of” a sport evokes Wheaties boxes, bobblehead dolls, TV advertisements and endorsements. Judge is a big, strong, home-run machine — but is he marketable off the field?

What about Mike Trout?

The same problem of marketability plagues Mike Trout’s candidacy as the face of the league.

Even though Judge is setting rookie records, most baseball fans say Trout is the best player in the sport. He was American League MVP in 2014 and in 2016. He was AL Rookie of the Year in 2012 (as Judge will surely be this season). He is a six-time All-Star, five-time Silver Slugger, and he’s only 26.

But Trout plays on the LA Angels, who haven’t made it to the World Series since 2002, long before Trout’s time. The face of baseball needs to be seen in the postseason. It’s about public awareness, not personal stats.

Bryce Harper, “making baseball fun again”

Nationals slugger Bryce Harper may represent the inverse argument of Trout: he has achieved some fame (maybe notoriety) outside of baseball, so he checks that box, even though there are players that have played better this season.

Last year, Harper told ESPN that baseball, “is a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself.” Soon, he was sporting a hat (parodying Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign motto) that said, “Make Baseball Fun Again.” Harper appeared nude on the cover of ESPN’s “Body Issue.” He’s got the looks, the hair. He’s got the priciest baseball endorsement deal ever, with Under Armour.

All of this adds up to a convincing case—but many traditional fans don’t like Harper’s edgy behavior or views on the sport. There is not universal love for Harper, the way that there was for Jeter. Harper is controversial. But maybe baseball needs a controversial star.

Clayton Kershaw, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Altuve

Here are three more popular choices fans like to shout out: Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton, and Astros second baseman Jose Altuve. These are all terrific players, but none is a real candidate for the solo face of baseball.

Kershaw gets limited time on the field (and thus exposure to fans) because he’s a pitcher. Stanton is limited by the small-market, losing-record team he plays for. Altuve, 5-foot-6, is an exciting oddity: the shortest player in the league; a five-time All-Star; Golden Glove winner; and he is getting extra attention right now for how good he’s been in the latter half of the season and the playoffs.

But most of the people who argue it’s one of these guys are fans of the teams they play for: Dodgers fans think it’s Kershaw, Astros fans insist it’s Altuve. The same goes for players like Mookie Betts of the Red Sox and Francisco Lindor of the Indians.

The Chicago Cubs, as a team

Here’s a different kind of thought: What if the most famous face in baseball right now isn’t one face, but a group of them? One could argue it’s the Cubs.

Together, they’ve got a range of likable personalities: Javier Baez, last year’s NLCS MVP, who played for Puerto Rico in this year’s World Baseball Classic, and who has visible fun playing the game; Kris Bryant, who was NL Rookie of the Year in 2015 and figures prominently in advertising campaigns for companies like Under Armour and fashion label Express; Anthony Rizzo, a three-time All-Star and Golden Glove-winning big kid who brings a positive energy to the team; and Kyle Schwarber, who was memorably brought back from injury rehab just in time for the World Series, to name a few of the core starters.

None of these players on his own (though some may argue Bryant) is individually famous enough to be the face of the league, but even casual sports fans know that the Chicago Cubs, with a lovable group of exciting young players, won the title last year and broke a 108-year curse.

The Cubs, as a team, are currently the most famous part of pro baseball, more than any one player.

There’s always Derek Jeter, new co-owner of the Marlins

Here’s a thought even more outside the box than the Cubs: What if it’s still Derek Jeter?

Yes, he’s retired, but recently enough that every sports fan in America knows who he is and remembers his gameplay. In his final season, the league, the team, and sponsors like Gatorade and Nike carried out a summer-long celebration like the sport had never seen (remember “RE2PECT”?).

In retirement, Jeter has been anything but quiet: he launched a website, The Players’ Tribune, that has become (for better or worse) the de facto place where athletes announce their news or tell harrowing personal stories; he launched a children’s publishing imprint; he owns a 24-Hour-Fitness gym in New York City. He has demonstrated a new playbook for retirement that future stars will follow. Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, who retired two seasons after Jeter, cites Jeter as his role model for retirement. “Everybody knows what he’s about, and he still is.” (Ortiz, by the way, was arguably the biggest name in the sport after Jeter retired.)

And now Jeter is the co-owner of the Miami Marlins, and the face of the team’s front office, so beginning next season he will still be very much in the sport day to day. (Whether fans like the personnel decisions he’s making is a different issue.) He’s not playing, but he is likely the most famous, and universally popular, individual working in baseball.

There is no ‘face of baseball’ right now — and that’s a problem

The final possibility, if you don’t buy any of the other candidates: MLB has no single “face of the sport” right now. That’s a problem in its path to growth with young fans.

The NFL has Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is almost unquestionably the face of the sport. (Some virulent Patriots haters may say it’s Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers instead.) Very few Americans do not recognize Tom Brady. In the NBA, the ‘face’ is surely LeBron James or Steph Curry — both pass the general fame test, both have signature sneaker deals with Nike or Under Armour that make them the solo face of a national sports marketing campaign.

The fact that it is such an open debate in baseball suggests a vacuum.

The NHL has the same problem: Sidney Crosby, widely thought to be its best player, is hardly famous outside of hockey. Everyone in America once knew Wayne Gretzky (“The Great One”); not so for hockey these days.

Perhaps the 2017 World Series — especially if the Cubs are there again, or if Judge leads the Yankees there in his rookie season — will provide an answer.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite. Sportsbook is our sports business video and podcast series.

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