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MLB’s Profitable Patriotism

Cynical marketing campaigns seem to be on the upswing in American sports. Back in March, I noted that the National Basketball Association had created more waste during its “Green Week,” producing a line of one-time-use jerseys, warm-ups, and basketballs that had everything to do with the NBA’s bottom line, and nothing to do with the environment.  Well, Major League Baseball is prepared to do something worse: for Memorial Day, it is outfitting all 30 teams with bright red “stars and stripes” caps as part of its “Welcome Back Veterans” program.  In so doing, MLB has actually tucked three insults into one.

First, and most trivially, there’s the aesthetic insult.  Check out these caps: they are ugly – actually, they might be the ugliest baseball caps to ever grace a baseball diamond.  (For the enthusiasts out there, yes, they’re definitely uglier than this, this, or this).  And, since all 30 teams must wear them, teams without red in their color schemes will suffer in particular.  In this vein, imagine this red cap with the San Diego Padres’ infamous sand-colored road uniform, or this cap with the Colorado Rockies’ purple-pinstriped jerseys.  Yikes.

Second, these caps insult the flag.  Indeed, the symbolism of Old Glory – freedom, liberty, and democracy – becomes cheapened when the stars and stripes are super-imposed in a Pittsburgh Pirates logo.  And that’s nothing against the Pirates – it’s just that a promotion intended to honor American veterans does quite the opposite when it callously re-brands the flag these brave men and women risked their lives defending.

Third, this promotion cynically uses our support for the troops as a vehicle for yet another MLB merchandising blitz.  In this vein, the $36.99 (!) red “stars and stripes” caps are the third post-9/11 iteration of “patriotic” MLB caps, succeeding the original flag-stitched cap and last year’s blue “stars and stripes” cap.  MLB is also offering a full line of $19.99 “stars and stripes” t-shirts and $119.99 (!) patriotic “fashion” jerseys.

Granted, MLB deserves some credit for donating the proceeds from the sale of the “stars and stripes” caps to charity (though an MLB spokesperson couldn’t say whether this included teams’ licensing profits).  However, the beneficiary charity is MLB’s own Welcome Back Veterans, which – naturally – puts the MLB logo front and center and, astoundingly, hasn’t updated its website in over two months.  Indeed, if the point is to help and honor veterans – and not simply push MLB’s branding into yet another frontier – why not give the proceeds to a more recognizable organization, such as VFW or the USO?  (The MLB spokesperson bristled at this question.)

Make no mistake: I am pleased that veterans will be honored on Memorial Day at ballparks across the country, and think that MLB has generally done a good job of sustaining a patriotic atmosphere at baseball games.  If anything, I fear that MLB’s latest “Welcome Back Veterans” event threatens the authenticity of this atmosphere by commercializing our support for the troops.  My advice: go back to the classy flag-stitched baseball caps; sell actual U.S. flags on national holidays and donate the proceeds to VFW; and, particularly on Memorial Day, let MLB donate $1 for every ticket sold to veterans.  In short, put veterans – and not MLB – front and center.


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