Why inclusion is good for communities and for business: Renee E. Tirado, Chief D&I Officer, Major League Baseball

By Joanna Aston, Staff Writer | The Business Case for Inclusion

Major League Baseball (MLB) is the most historic of the four major professional sports leagues in America. Today it remains a much loved sport to watch and play for many not only in the USA, but also across the globe.

MLB was the first professional sports league to create a Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) department 20 years ago, and from that time they have made a concerted effort to assess who they are partnering with to ensure they represent the true breadth and scale of MLB’s community. MLB remains committed to supporting the growth and strength of the communities it reaches, and in turn, MLB grows stronger, too.

Today, Renee Tirado is the Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer for Major League Baseball. She is responsible for the strategy and implementation of D&I for MLB. A New York native, born and bred in Brooklyn to Puerto Rican parents, Renee’s route to her current role is a diverse one. Starting out as an attorney, she shifted gears by finding herself at the National Basketball Association Retired Players Association (NBRPA) rather serendipitously, thanks to a friendly argument over the New York Knicks at a corporate event. Whilst the arguments weren’t resolved that evening, Renee made an impression. Six months later she was approached to join the NBRPA.

Renee cut her teeth in D&I when she joined the United States Tennis Association as the director of Diversity and Inclusion, helping to grow and expand the game amongst underrepresented groups. She then progressed to AIG, the financial institution, where she led Global Diversity for the Americas, before joining MLB in 2016.

We met up with Renee to discuss why a D&I strategy is not just the right thing to do, but also good for growing audiences and businesses.

Baseball has a long tradition of Diversity and Inclusion. What are some of those milestones and how has that impacted MLB today?

Diversity and Inclusion has a rich history within the game. There was an entire community of African Americans who had their own, highly successful league when American society was still segregated. Baseball was the first sport to desegregate when Jackie Robinson started on first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15th, 1947. Jackie Robinson is THE business case for D&I. At the time, Jackie joining MLB offered an economic opportunity to grow the game as it brought in the Black community. To date, MLB has invested over $2 billion in D&I efforts, ensuring inclusivity across gender, economic, racial, and disability lines.

What is your focus for D&I at MLB today and into the future?

In order for MLB to thrive, fans need to see themselves reflected in our sport on and off the field. Baseball today remains the number one youth sport in America. The challenge is, how do you continue to engage these young players throughout their teenage years and into adulthood? I think about it in a number of ways. MLB has a strong youth agenda, and commits investments to inclusive sports programming to ensure baseball remains accessible across all communities, particularly those in underserved areas.

Over 70% of our RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program serves a diversity of kids and we are deliberately not a "pay for play" model. Any child can play if they have the desire to do so. On the field is tougher. Today 8% of professional players are African-American (at its height, representation was 17%), 30% Latino. Nonetheless, our youth programs agenda will change those numbers in years to come. Case in point: 20% of the players selected in the last seven MLB drafts have been African American, several of whom in some point of their youth careers were involved in at least one of our programs.

Another important component is diversity within MLB’s workforce. Having a keen eye on how diverse and inclusive the “bench” is for eligible candidates in roles within marketing, finance, operations, etc. is a critical part to ensuring appropriate representation within the organization. For those front office/future GM roles, we have the Diversity Pipeline Program which focuses exclusively on sourcing diverse talent and women for baseball operations opportunities.

How do you evolve MLB it to attract new audiences?

People associate change with dismantling tradition. But the reality is we have to change to keep that tradition alive. Baseball is all about the live experience, creating memories with friends and family. However, America is changing, so my philosophy is to honor that history while being modern in its application. In this digital era, where we all have the power to swipe away content or brands we don’t want to engage with, this makes the live experience all the more important.

My approach is to color outside the lines, keeping a nod to the past, but looking to the future. This is why we have and continue to have a strong focus on what local businesses and organizations they engage with in and around the stadium to ensure the experience reflects the breadth of fans attending the games.

Furthermore, at the 2018 MLB All-Star Week, one of my department's core marketing events, we hosted a gaming lounge, where lucky fans had the opportunity to meet a number of the future players from the minor leagues and challenged them to a game of Fortnite. We hosted a sneaker customization artist who customized cleats onsite and panels on entrepreneurship, e-sports and theater. Events like these appeal to new audiences, and it makes the athletes and our game relatable in new and creative ways. It pushes new content with a baseball overlay. We know we must (and do) continue to innovate creative ways to position our brand in front of new and emerging audiences that honors our legacy in a modern fashion.

The success of Diversity and Inclusion efforts is often tied to an organization's accountability and commitment to change. How does MLB stay accountable to its D&I strategy?

What gets measured, gets done. MLB attaches metrics to all the initiatives we run, from hashtags in social outreaches, to tracking the number of activations across strategies such as youth programs, to traditional information on recruiting and hiring practices. For example, we have apps to capture demographics within our youth league, tracking how many players are staying in the game and for how long to identify areas of change or additional resources.

Talent is another area where accountability is crucial. Annually, we publish our data in what’s known as the Lapchik Report (which measures D&I in sports). We analyze data to know who is being interviewed, who is getting hired, who is getting promoted and, equally important, why people aren’t getting employed. And we like to stay in touch with promising applicants, and offer support to train and educate to make them more eligible for future roles. We have no illusions about our challenges. We know there is a lot of work to be done. But my belief is that there is a home for everyone in baseball and I have to make sure baseball is ready to welcome them when they come.

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