The walk between Safeco Field and the heart of Seattle's Capitol Hill is two miles, or about 45 minutes if you're doing the uphill trek at a somewhat leisurely place. I could stretch it into an hour if I stopped off for a late dinner at the taco truck-like joint holed up in an old KFC or the Dick's Burgers down the street. During the 2010 and 2011 seasons—during which the Mariners lost a combined 196 games—I made that late-night walk roughly 100 times. And it felt like three times out of four it was following a 3-1, 2-1 or 4-2 loss.
When I arrived home, usually around 11, I knew I had roughly an hour to an hour and a half before I'd be able to sleep—regardless of how exciting or dull the game may have been. So I'd fill it with some ESPN3 highlights of the XBox, random reading and then climb into bed for the last of the usual postgame routine: looking over game highlights on the iPad and, if I hadn't passed out yet, reading the regular game recap to come online from Jeff Sullivan at Lookout Landing.
For myself and many other Mariners fans, reading those recaps and the other regularly-outstanding writing and analysis put forth by Jeff was as much a part of the Mariners fan routine as the games themselves. For some, it was even more-so.
So it came as quite the blow to the entire Mariners community when Jeff announced he'd written his last post for Lookout Landing, citing the desire to make following and writing about the M's feel less like a job and more like the hobby it was intended to be—to make it fun again.
I bring this story here because I want to highlight a sample of the responses to Jeff closing up shop, ones that illustrate how profound an impact he and the community he created had on numerous fans. These are pulled from the comments of Jeff's last post on Lookout Landing:
These aren't all of the comments carrying the "I wouldn't be the M's fan I am if not for Jeff" sentiment. Hell, it isn't even close. And those are just the individuals who fully grasp the impact Jeff had on them, and actually comment on it. The full number impacted in such a way, I'm sure, is well into the thousands, possibly tens of thousands. These are fans who not only passionately follow the Mariners through a thriving community, but are educating themselves on the game. When they're at the ballpark and their friend says "GOD, Brendan Ryan is batting below .200—why is he even on the team?!", they can respond in kind with "He's actually one of the M's most valuable players. His defense is that great." The word-of-mouth impact sites like Lookout Landing have—all the more important in the era of social media—cannot be undervalued.
My point with all of this? This is what sports teams themselves should be striving desperately to create. Can you think of any marketing initiative, in any industry, that'd produce responses like the ones you see above? I understand so much of marketing is in the subtleties, that fans can't usually point to one or even a few initiatives that caused them to be bigger fans—that instead, it happens over time. But again, look at those responses. Going against almost all of what Jeff and other baseball bloggers preach, a lack of quantitive data supporting a point or a cause doesn't mean the point or cause is invalid. It's possible there are factors at play, powerful ones, that are immeasurable. Ignoring them completely for lack of data comes with an enormous opportunity cost.
There are very, very few baseball writers out there as talented and dedicated as Jeff Sullivan, and even he couldn't do it forever. There won't always be writers out there doing this to the benefit of the team for free. And with the team's resources, it could be even better.
According to a recent survey of 468 chief marketing officers across the country, social media spending is set to more than double over the next five years. Now, sports teams can spend this money on Facebook "Like", Instagram photo and Twitter retweet contests, maybe the occasional social ad—or they can do something that absolutely takes non-fans and turns them into fans, and takes good fans and turns them into great ones.
It isn't easy. You can't fake passion, an advanced understanding of baseball or—above all—the remarkable ability to convey each of those two things in writing in a way that those aforementioned traits are passed along to others. But teams have to try. They can't only hire marketers to do their social media marketing, there's just more to it than that. In an ideal world, teams hire guys like Jeff, going to him with a blank canvas, all the access he could ever want and three simple words: "just have fun."
UPDATE: And, adding to the stream of comments on Sullivan departing from LL, we have Arizona Diamondback's pitcher Brandon McCarthy:
@lookoutlanding congratulations on moving out of your mom's basement jeff!— Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) March 14, 2013