Selling Strasburg: Baseball, Broadcast Flow and the Commodity Audience

Curator's Note

Last month, Stephen Strasburg made his Major League debut for the Washington Nationals. He sold out the ballpark, increased local tv ratings more than twenty fold (and national ratings ten fold) while striking out 14 and regularly hitting close to 100 miles per hour on the radar gun. Strasburg's was widely considered the most anticipated, most hyped debut of any professional ballplayer ever. Sportswriters searched for comparisons, but unlike the monumental debuts of players like Hideo Nomo, Fernando Valenzuela or even Jackie Robinson, Strasburg has not been promoted in terms of any broader social, cultural or political significance. Strasburg is not being used to construct a global audience or a Latino audience or a black audience for the game, yet the hype surrounding Strasburg is nonetheless linked to his ability to sell the sport and to sell the sport to a specific audience. In an age of niche audiences, Strasburg is unique not because he appeals to narrow racial or ethnic demographics, but because the (perceived) neutrality of his whiteness and wholesome masculinity can construct and draw a mass viewership not only to the ballpark but to the broadcast-- which is where the real money in baseball comes from.

As numerous scholars have argued, in television what is being sold to advertisers is not just programming but an audience to buy those advertisers’ products-- the commodity audience. Televised sports and televisual flow are particularly relevant in this respect because sports are one of the few arenas left in which traditional flow between program segments and advertising still reigns supreme. Thus analyzing the continued presence of flow in televised sports provides a space in which to examine how the audience is constructed as a commodity by organizations like Major League Baseball and the Nationals and networks like the MidAtlantic Sports Network or the MLB Network. As much as Strasburg is a product to be sold to MASN and to the advertisers who buy ad space both at the ballpark and on the network, he matters because he can be used to construct an audience that will come to the ballpark that is being used to revitalize the historically black, urban district of Southeast Washington. The selling of Stephen Strasburg as part of the televised game and the use of flow in the construction of the commodity audience thus provide an access point from which to examine both the interests of baseball and the ongoing presence of historic television strategies and baseball's appeal to a mass (read white and male) audience.

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As you point out, the media hype surrounding Strassburg and leading up to his debut has been remarkable—I already feel as if he’s been in the league for several years. And the point you make about the racial dimensions of these debuts is well-taken. I was certainly taken aback to see ESPN’s countdown to Strassburg’s first MLB start last month and even to read that some folks were considering voting him onto this year’s All Star team even though he was not brought up until two months into the league.

You bring up an interesting point about how Strassburg is often represented outside of a social-historical-cultural context and how this abstraction from the political—broadly defines—effectively recuperates him into a white male hegemony. I have only followed the story in a superficial way, getting most of my information from mainstream sports outlets and a couple of blogs I frequent. But there does seem to be a sense, as you discuss earlier in your post, that Strassburg does not seem to be connected to a narrative. The same went for Mark Prior—the last very highly anticipated white pitcher to debut—when he entered the league in 2001. I get the sense that Strassburg exists as a decontextualized 100-mph fastball. His whiteness seems to aid this abstraction from cultural politics while making him an even more economically potent for the "mass" audience. The montage of abstracted strikeouts seems to reinforce this notion.

It will certainly be interesting to see how he, MLB, and the Nationals work to cultivate his image. Also, given the ballpark’s place as part of southeast D.C.’s revitalization/gentrification, it would be fascinating to see how he is being publicized specifically within the D.C. area and the racial/gender/class implications of those representations. Is he being cast as a kind of (white) savior for D.C.? This status becomes particularly interesting given a few interviews with Washington Nationals players before his debut. Nationals outfielder Nyjer Morgan said that teammates dubbed Strasburg "Jesus" during spring training because "that’s the first thing you say when you see him pitch." While I initially paid little attention to this comment, it has become far more interesting after reading you post.

I might go so far as to say that, for many, Strasburg represents not only a white savior for D.C., but for baseball as a whole. And when you consider how closely baseball is linked in the national consciousness with America, the ramifications become even broader. The increased prominence of Japanese, Korean, and Central American players in the league has surely helped MLB's global marketing, but may also read to backwards-minded fans as encroachment on "America's game." I might be pushing a bit too hard to view Strasburg's big-league ascension (sorry, but the associations are too easy and too fun to pass up) as a microcosm of white American's racial anxiety, expressed by Tea Party-ers and their ilk as the need to "take back" the country, but you guys are definitely onto something here.

I also think it's worth considering how StrasburgMania is also the product of the 24-hour sports news cycle, and how the the internet, and especially the conflation of news with social media, ends up producing a very different kind of flow from television. Online "flow" is active rather than passive, manic rather than steady, and fractured rather than monolithic. The need to find information—and to be the first to find it—feeds our fan culture's stock-ticker mentality.

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