SBD/July 19, 2017/Events and Attractions

Commissioners Share Stage For First Time To Answer Questions About Esports, Player Safety

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The commissioners of four major U.S. sports gathered at the Paley Center in Manhattan last night, marking the first time Gary Bettman, Roger Goodell, Rob Manfred and Adam Silver shared a stage together. The panel brought out bold-faced names in sports business, including Knicks/Rangers Owner James Dolan, who sat in the front row; Turner President David Levy; and MLBAM President of Business & Media Bob Bowman. Discovery President & CEO David Zaslav moderated the panel. The conversation hit on many of the challenges sports leagues are facing in the current environment.

ESPORTS: Each commissioner spoke of how they are embracing esports as a way to get younger fans engaged with their sports. Manfred called it “an important source of fan engagement,” while Bettman said leagues “have to make sure that we are relevant in all ways possible to young people.” Silver: “For us, it’s a two-fer. We get the benefit of promoting the game of NBA basketball. But we’re also developing new content and appealing to a new audience.” Goodell called investments in areas like esports and fantasy sports crucial for growth. “Fantasy drives engagement. We see it in ratings. We see it with our television partners -- even if your team is out of it, you’re going to watch. It does potentially have a little bit of a negative view. Do they still have the same loyalty to a team they once had? But they used to turn the television set off. Now they’re not.”

PLAYER SAFETY: Both Bettman and Goodell said that their leagues are safer than ever. “I believe kids can play the game safely,” Goodell said. “In fact, it’s much safer than when I played as a kid. I would want my kids to play.” Bettman said that on-ice fighting is at the lowest point in the history of the NHL. “The issue of fisticuffs in hockey gets overblown,” he said. “It’s an extremely small part of the game. That gets to be a distraction, both from the media and from other quarters where somebody’s trying to prove a point. At the end of the day, what people expect from our game and from football is physicality and both leagues work very hard to make sure our games are as safe as possible.”

REPLAY: Dolan asked Manfred why MLB still uses umpires to call balls and strikes. Dolan said, “Wimbledon was just played this last weekend. We saw men’s players serving serves at up to 130 miles per hour. Nobody pitches that fast, right? They were able to use technology to determine whether that ball was in or out by as little as an eighth of an inch.” Manfred replied, “You should always think about a technology where what they show you as part of the replay is a simulation as opposed to the actual stop frame. Think about that when you’re watching tennis and see what conclusion you come to.” Manfred added, “We do have a system that we use in broadcast that measures balls and strikes. In all candor, that technology has a larger margin of error than we see with human umpires. Some day I think it will be up to the task of calling balls and strikes. But I actually believe at that point that you have to ask yourself a question as to whether you want to take that human element out of the game and replace it with a machine.”

SPORTSNET LA: When asked about the Dodgers’ local TV situation -- its SportsNet LA RSN still is not carried by most distributors in the market – Manfred did not hold back, calling it “a bad situation for our sport” and saying that “it doesn’t enhance the brand of the Dodgers.” Manfred: “There will be a re-ordering of the RSNs in the L.A. market at some point in time, and hopefully a reordering that will bring this distribution dispute to the end.” Manfred said MLB talks regularly with all the relevant parties. “Unfortunately, we are really not one of them. We have no economic interest in this particular dispute. We have tried mightily to find some common ground.”

QUICK HITS
• Bettman: “We’ve had some challenges with our union for as long as I’ve been commissioner.”
• Bettman: “Historically, we have been underserved by traditional media. HDTV and all the digital platforms and social media for us represents an opportunity where we haven’t been as well served as the other three sports in terms of national media.”
• Bettman: “People make fun of us because we fight to preserve the franchise in Arizona, of all places. But one of the stars for the ages who just played his first year for the Toronto Maple Leafs [Auston Matthews] came from Scottsdale, Arizona. He will tell you that if it wasn't for the fact that his uncle took him to a Coyotes game, he probably would never have played hockey. We think we have an enormous opportunity to continue to grow.”
• Goodell: “How do we make the game more engaging? We’re taking less commercial breaks so that we don’t give them a reason to turn the channel or look at another device. We want them to be engaged with that game. We’re looking to see how we take dead time out, whether that’s through our rules or instant replay. Nobody really wants to watch the officials running around figuring out what’s going on. They want to watch action.”
• Goodell: “Thankfully, RedZone is not having any effect on our broadcast audience. I would argue that it’s been an additive. It’s increased our audiences. You have to be willing to cannibalize yourself. You have to give the viewer what they want when they want it.”
• Goodell: “One of the problems we all face as an industry is that kids are playing less sports and are, in fact, playing one sport and specializing in that on a year-round basis. I don't think there’s anything worse than that. … Kids are missing something when they’re not playing multiple sports.” 
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