Sports have always been a key stage for societal change values — Colin Kapernick, Jackie Robinson, the WNBA. The latest example is Major League Baseball moving its annual All-Star game due to Georgia’s S.B. 202, a law that will restrict voting access for residents of the state.
MLB tied their actions directly to values. In Commissioner Rob Manfred’s statement about the move, he said it was “the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport.” What are MLB’s values? The short answer is, “it’s complicated.”
In terms of equality and diversity, Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier is one of the most important civil rights moments in history, but today only 8% of MLB players are black and there are no teams with a majority owner who is African-American.
Similarly, this season Kim Ng broke the gender barrier as the first female general manager in any of the major US sports, but baseball is still plagued by misogyny among some players, coaches, and front office personnel.
In terms of employee empowerment, baseball has one of the strongest unions and the most lucrative player contracts of any of the major sports leagues, but the sport also has a heavily-scrutinized minor league system which pays players below minimum wage for their labor.
For every accomplishment, there is a black eye. In that sense, MLB is no different than any major corporation. Even those doing their best to make their workplaces more diverse, fair, and equitable often slip up or have skeletons in their closet.
These complexities show that companies are rarely all good or all bad — they are made up of people, and people are complex. We can applaud baseball’s decision to take a values-based action without having to overlook on-going transgressions. Progress is rarely linear.
In our values discussions, we are often asked if a brand can become values-driven or if they have to be that way from the start. Our advice comes from the great Mark Twain, who said, “It is never wrong to do the right thing.”
Baseball will turn some fans off with this decision, but likely turn even more on. In our research, when a brand supports a controversial position, it stands to lose about 5% of its addressable audience. However, that brand usually supercharges 20-30% of its audience, leading to high loyalty and brand advocacy.
For Major League Baseball the issue now is less about this decision and more about how they turn their complicated past and aspirational values position into a constant force for good.