Seven years ago, when the Los Angeles Dodgers first held an LGBT Night, there was a fear of alienating fans.
At this year’s LGBT Night on May 31, the club welcomed 54,307 fans, the largest Dodger Stadium crowd since 2012 – including the more than 12,000 tickets sold for the night’s promotion.
The Dodgers are just one example of the growing number of teams and leagues looking to build more inclusive fan bases. Dodgers Senior Vice President of Marketing and Broadcasting Erik Braverman said the efforts are shedding the fear of alienation and are simply the right thing to do, but there’s more to its success than just hosting one-off LGBT events.
“We don’t do it to tick a box, we don’t do it to say we’ve covered all communities, we’re not doing it just to pander for the community; we do it because we believe it,” Braverman said. “There are 364 days a year that build and make that one night of celebration. That’s the one important part that other teams have to understand. You can’t just put it on a calendar and say we’re doing it.”
The Dodgers aren’t alone, as nearly every MLB club will have an event or night in support of the LGBTQ community or spirit of inclusion. Billy Bean, an MLB vice president and special assistant to the commissioner, also has visited almost every team to discuss positive inclusion practices in the clubhouse, on the field and within the workforce. Likewise, nine clubs take part in the “Shred Hate” anti-bullying initiative in schools, which reached nearly 60,000 students this past academic year.
Braverman said the Dodgers hang their hats on a history of diversity and inclusion, highlighted by Jackie Robinson. Now, the organization wants to make sure that legacy lives on through a history of strong single-game, inclusion-based promotions. According to Braverman, that success boils down to the Dodgers’ fairly simple strategy of being engaged.
“Like so many other promotions, LGBT Night started off like a small effort to engage with different parts of our very diverse fanbase,” Braverman said. “It’s grown every year largely because the organization’s relationship within the community year-round. We made a conscious decision to have an authentic year-round connection by working very closely within the community we’re trying to reach.”
The idea of a single night not being enough and instead only a piece of a larger puzzle is echoed by Vincent Pierson, former Minor League Baseball director of diversity and inclusion. He said the event needs to be a celebration of a relationship.
This year, 69 teams will participate in the league-wide MiLB Pride with events like LGBT nights. The number has grown from 19 in 2017 and 40 last year, Pierson said. Each team puts on their own event, but Pierson sees the league office playing a valuable role in helping facilitate discussions and logistics.
“A lot of times the challenge is there might be uncertainty, that people in the market walk by and don’t know if it’s a place they can have a good time,” Pierson said. “It takes a lot of communication and understanding, acknowledging the status quo and that we might have a blind spot.”
Pierson said a key for the league and its teams is the mass sounding board the other teams provide.
“When teams start talking to each other, that’s when we hit the jackpot,” he said. “We want to make sure they know how to do it effectively and create an ecosystem to know that other teams are doing it.”
MiLB partnered with You Can Play, an organization focused on equality within sports, to help build the league’s Pride campaign. You Can Play also has partnerships with a variety of teams and leagues, like the NHL and MLS. Since its founding nearly 10 years ago, You Can Play has built a stable of partners willing to do more, said Ryan Pettengill, the organization’s executive director.
“We’re organ speaking to those who still need reassurance things will go over well and need some creative thought process,” Pettengill said. “[When we started with the NHL] a lot of teams started small, and it has snowballed somewhat organically. Now, for every year that goes on, the community is much more accepted. The generation of fans coming up behind me, they have a very different value set around inclusion and things like gay marriage and adoption laws.”
The project with MiLB was long, Pettengill said, and since the league is so large it was impossible to offer teams one-on-one consultation. You Can Play helped put together a playbook with very specific details of what teams can do, whether it’s as simple as LGBT Night or more in-depth programming.
During the NBA season, more than half the league hosted inclusion-themed nights as part of a larger diversity and inclusion effort led by Oris Stuart, the league’s chief diversity and inclusion officer. In stride with Braverman and Pierson, Stuart talked about year-round NBA partnerships with organizations like GLSEN, GLAAD, A Call to Men, Human Rights Campaign and Athlete Ally. The league also holds inclusivity training with NBA teams and a mandatory rookie transition program, where former NBA player Jason Collins speaks with Athlete Ally Founder Hudson Taylor. Collins was the first openly gay player to play in any of the big four leagues.
Stuart believes to build an “instinct for inclusion” it will take the broader population to “achieve a deeper appreciation for the costs of our disunity and the enormous benefits that we can gain from our ability to work together.”
“Both in our game and out in our communities, it’s important that we use our game to demonstrate a true commitment to diversity and inclusion and create more opportunities to grow our fanbase,” Stuart said. “At the league and team level we are committed to growing a culture of inclusiveness in all aspects of our business and our game. We deliver recurring learning experiences for all employees globally, that reinforce the role we each have as individuals to drive inclusion through our engagement with fans, fellow employees and all other stakeholders.”
Other leagues are following suit. This year was the first time the NHL and NHLPA have designated a full month to celebrate the LGBTQ community, with all 31 of the league’s teams having their own community and in-game activations around celebrating diversity and inclusion in hockey across February.
MLS held its second-annual “Soccer For All” month in May this season, with both the league and all of its clubs running a variety of activations aiming to foster more inclusive communities.
Now, as more teams and leagues across the U.S. begin to actively look at building a more inclusive fanbase, organizations like You Can Play or leagues like MiLB will work to share their best practices. From the Dodgers’ perspective, Braverman doesn’t shy away from offering advice or sharing successful strategies.
“The sincerest form of flattery is when someone copies you, and we’re not above copying other successes either,” he said. “There’s no pride in ownership; we want everyone to enjoy this game.”