MLB eyes a fresh look with younger fans


SEATTLE (AP) — Major League Baseball’s quest for the crown of cool will be on display Tuesday when its top players strut down a red carpet show at Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market ahead of the All-Star Game.

The fan-friendly event is as much an homage to baseball’s iconic place in street style — from the game’s signature caps and jerseys to the classic tees — as it is an indication that MLB is increasingly staking its claim on fashion as an entry to new audiences and pop culture reverence.

“MLB gave me a stylist for this game,” said Corbin Carroll, a 22-year-old Seattle native turned Arizona Diamondbacks’ breakout rookie. “The outfit’s kind of cool. Definitely, it’s not something I would pick out for myself, but I’m kind of excited to show that off.”

Because like a good many Gen Zer — which includes those born in the late 1990s and early 2000s — Carroll described his off-duty style as more casual than high fashion: “Athleisure, not too many logos, plain, a nice good fit.”

But it’s no coincidence that MLB is tapping the young, mixed-race player as a style ambassador for its All-Star Red Carpet Show.

The league has for years suffered from the same audience problem. There is a perception that baseball is so steeped in American tradition that it may be a stodgy game targeted to old-timers — namely, white fans — who still track scores by hand in the stands.

“Sometimes perception becomes reality, but it’s just never been accurate. Look at the young people — they’ve always been here,” said Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer. “We always want to attract younger fans. It’s the foundation of any business.”

So MLB has been trying to liven up its image for years, watching with wonder as the NBA’s cultural dominance grew alongside the basketball stars who have been cemented as style kings among celebrity athletes, along with their sneakers, suits and streetwear.

The NBA is the No. 1 brand preference for Gen Z across sports institutions, said Brandon Brown, a sports management professor at New York University, in part because the game and its savvy players are so heavily tied to urban hip-hop culture and self-representation — things this generation so identifies with.

Not since the Seattle Mariners’ own Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. — with his signature and very ’90s backwards baseball cap — has there truly been an MLB player seen as a cross-cultural superstar who could make a splash with just his outfits, Brown said.

“He (was in) a bunch of different mediums to speak to a multitude of audiences,” Brown said. “MLB is probably still looking for their next superstar in modern culture.”

Today, baseball officials are keen to encourage their players to shine in the same way, too, knowing the ticket to loyal fans can be found off the field — perhaps at a much-hyped red carpet show built to pop on social media.

“It’s a really important event. The players really embrace it, too,” Garden said. “It’s to highlight our best players and bringing them closer to the fans.”

Among the league’s most fashion-forward players: Mariners star Julio Rodríguez, 22, whose red carpet outfit for Tuesday was handmade in Italy and pays tribute to Seattle. The reigning American League Rookie of the Year works with a personal shopper.

“It’s something that’s going to connect really well with the city of Seattle, and I feel like it’s going to represent what the whole city is about,” Rodríguez said. “What do you think about when you think about Seattle? You think a little bit about the trees, the lakes and all those things — the beautiful summer. So, it’s going to go towards that.”

The look, complete with a pair of exclusive Alexander McQueen sneakers, was crafted by Ethan Weisman, the founder of Pantheon Limited Custom Clothiers. Sports fans have certainly seen Weisman’s looks before. He’s the man behind Ezekiel Elliott’s head-turning crop-top tuxedo at the 2016 NFL draft.

Garden said MLB’s forays into fashion are not really about merchandising revenue, as its high-end collaborations with the likes of Gucci don’t sell for volume.

“There’s very limited quantities. It allows us to reach out to a very specific part of the fan base,” Garden said. “It’s a closer association with non-traditional brands.”

It’s such a coveted supply that some players have even called the front office asking for a piece of MLB’s limited edition Gucci collection, Garden said.

So lest you believe the unstylish rumors, there actually has been many short stops in baseball’s history with fashion.

There’s been official collaborations with brands ranging from preppy Ralph Lauren to niche streetwear label Supreme. Baseball’s long-established role as fashion inspiration is thanks in part to the league’s pioneering sale of replica jerseys. It was a socially-conscious decision to celebrate the league-wide No. 42 jersey on Jackie Robinson Day.

And the strategic licensing of the famous New York Yankees logo globally has arguably, to borrow the words of iconic rapper Jay-Z, “made the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can.” In fact, MLB’s fashion efforts are a major part of their international marketing plan, lately leaning into France’s affinity for fashion to break into the wider European market.

“What they’re tapping into is a kind of a cultural capital that’s not financial. It’s about the fans. It’s about nostalgia,” said Erin Corrales-Diaz, a Toledo Museum of Art curator who wrote a book about the baseball jersey and the sport’s influence on fashion. “Fashion has always been a part of the sport, even if it hasn’t always been articulated.”

Even so, MLB may still have its work cut out for it as several All-Star players acknowledged they were less than fluent in fashion ahead of Tuesday’s show.

Carroll of the Diamondbacks flashed a shy smile describing his first time working with a stylist and first time doing any red carpet event.

“I might be more nervous for that than the game,” Carroll said. “It’s definitely not my world but I’m going to try and enjoy it.”

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