3 Lessons from the new Home Run Derby

July 15, 2015
July 15, 2015 Tom Allin

As a lifelong baseball fan, it can become tiresome (and downright depressing) to read obituary after obituary of the sport. Which is why it was totally awesome to watch Monday’s new-format Home Run Derby—and then read the near-unanimous praise yesterday morning.

Put simply, everything about the Derby was great, but as I thought more about it, I landed on three fairly simple things Major League Baseball did that, I think, could apply to any company in need of a jump start.

  1. Encourage. Don’t Discourage.

In the past, each batter was given a certain number of “outs”—swings that did not result in home runs. The result? Batters were more tentative—watching lots of pitches go by, while waiting for the “perfect” pitch.

This year, however, batters weren’t punished for bad swings. They could swing as much as they liked; they just had to do it in 4 minutes. And, the best part is that the number of home runs went through the roof. Compared to last year’s 78, this year’s Derby saw 159.

There’s great power in establishing a culture of encouragement. While every idea might not be a home run, so to speak, you’ll definitely encourage more.

  1. Be Willing to Break Your Own Rules.

While I only made mention to it above, the significance of baseball adding a time-based element cannot be overstated. The most common criticism of baseball is some variation of “It’s boring because it takes too long.” Which isn’t wholly untrue. But, baseball, more than any other sport, is remarkably conservative in its approach to rules. Change comes hard—and even the thought of adding a time element rouses fierce opposition from fans and players alike.

That’s why the fact that Baseball did allow a “shot clock” into the new Home Run Derby was so shocking—and juxtapositionally awesome.

I’m not saying that not staying true to principles is invariably a good thing, but I am saying that, sometimes, it can be a great thing. And something that will catch the eye of the people and audiences you least expect. After all, it’s the first time I’ve seen my wife stay up that late to watch a baseball-related event in a while.

  1. Nurture Stories At Every Turn.

Finally, adding the head-to-head bracket-style competition in 2014 also helped up the drama of the Derby. So, instead of a larger group of batters competing against one another, we were treated to more detailed narratives—Albert Pujols (the elder statesman) v. Kris Bryant (the young phenom) or Todd Frazier (last year’s runner-up) v. Prince Fielder (a 2-time champion). Each match-up had a story, and that was a good thing.

Here’s what it came down to: The Home Run Derby had all the right ingredients; it simply had to frame and structure them differently. So, instead of a big group, they went for the heightened drama of individual match-ups. Same players. Same stories. Just a different way of telling it.

And, in the end, stories make things—brands, institutions, cities, home run derbies—more compelling and meaningful by giving people something to talk about, relate to, and (eventually) form a deeper emotional connection to.

*****

So, well done, Major League Baseball. By understanding your audience, you not only engaged old fans (like me) and new fans (like my wife), but also connected with us all in a new—and very exciting—way. I think you’d call that, well, a home run.

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