SBJ/March 25-31, 2013/In DepthPrint All
Bud Selig retire? That’s been much more of a punchline over the years than anything else. The notion of the ninth commissioner of Major League Baseball stepping down after what is now two decades of running the game has been widely laughed off as nonsense.
And why not? Selig, now 78, repeatedly vowed to retire, only to accept contract extensions in 2004, 2008 and again in 2012, the latest one signed nearly 15 months ago taking his term to Dec. 31, 2014. One could call him the Sugar Ray Leonard of baseball commissioners given his marked ability to repeatedly un-retire.
Bud Selig has held the commissioner post since 1992, when he initially agreed to serve on a temporary basis.
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But over the past year, signs have steadily increased that this time, finally, Selig’s vow to step down is no joke, and that he truly intends to pursue a retirement life of writing and teaching at the University of Wisconsin, his alma mater; Marquette University; and perhaps additional schools beyond that.
That means MLB owners will face a monumental decision they have not fully grappled with since 1992: choosing who will fill one of the most powerful and important jobs in all of sports.
“There has been no deviation in my plans. I’m really looking forward to these other endeavors,” Selig said. “I think [the owners] understand. I am done. I do understand some of the feeling out there, but I am done Dec. 31, 2014. That’s it.”
Lew Wolff, Oakland A’s owner and fraternity brother with Selig at Wisconsin nearly six decades ago, agrees, as do many of his fellow owner colleagues.
“I think he’s serious this time,” Wolff said. “I still feel he shouldn’t retire. But I do think he’s serious.”
At present, no formal process has been established to identify Selig’s successor. And given Selig’s immense power in the game, it would be considered ill form and career-damaging for anyone to publicly declare himself a candidate for the job. But by the end of this season, many baseball executives expect to see the beginning of a pathway that will lead to the next commissioner.
“The next three to five months I think will shed a lot of light on this,” said Pat O’Conner, Minor League Baseball president. “But life in baseball without Bud Selig is still a foreign concept for a lot of us in the game.”
The longest-running temp ever
Part of the humor surrounding Selig’s oft-delayed retirement is that the job was initially intended to be only a temporary move when he became acting commissioner in 1992. With owner sentiment deeply rooted against then-Commissioner Fay Vincent, Selig was among the lead group of owners fronting the effort to remove Vincent. Selig, then the owner of the Milwaukee Brewers and chairman of MLB’s powerful executive council, was installed as the sport’s leader. He told Sue the assignment would last only two to four months.
“It’s got to be the longest two to four months in history,” Selig joked upon signing the 2004 contract extension.
What ended up happening, however, is the job and highly tumultuous 1990s period in baseball essentially consumed Selig, keeping him in office.
In early 1993, just on the outside of Selig’s supposed four-month term, an internal search committee formed to find a permanent replacement to Vincent and 10 finalists were eventually identified. Final candidates included veteran industry executive Harvey Schiller, former NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, former Northwestern University President Arnold Weber, USOC executive Anita DeFrantz and former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell, later a key figure in Selig-commissioned studies on baseball economics and use of performing-enhancing drugs.
But in early 1994, mounting labor woes with the MLB Players Association prompted owners to abruptly call off the search and beseech Selig to stay on as acting commissioner. He agreed, and then more crises developed. First the players’ strike wiped out the 1994 World Series, followed by a mounting economic divide between large-market and small-market teams, followed by the scandals over performance enhancing drugs. Selig’s acting commissioner tag was removed in 1998 as the once-temporary assignment had long since become a permanent one.
As the years went on, the league began to grow at historic levels and Selig relished the job. After 20 years, he now feels secure enough in his legacy that looking ahead to retirement does not feel like abandoning unfinished business.
“If someone had suggested 20 years ago, even 15, 10 or five years ago, that this sport would be in the place it is in today, you couldn’t have imagined it,” Selig said. “To be talking about gross revenue approaching $8 billion [per year]. Attendance levels we couldn’t have dreamed possible. The sport has never been more popular. It’s a source of real personal satisfaction, no doubt about it.”
What do the owners want?
One significant issue as MLB approaches the transition to a new commissioner is the changing face of team ownership. Since Selig became acting commissioner, 26 of 30 clubs have changed owners or designated control executives, including multiple transfers during the past 20 years for about half the league. As a result, Selig’s current job description involves building consensus with an ownership group with which he simply isn’t as familiar as he once was.
“The connections for him with that group are now very different,” said an industry executive not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The present situation, conversely, provides the owners a unique opportunity to more deliberately select the type of commissioner they want next.
“The first big question is what kind of skill set do they want,” said David Levy, Turner Broadcasting president of sales, distribution and sports. “Are they looking for a pure baseball guy? A media guy? Somebody with more of a legal background? There are a lot of different directions they could go. Either way, we’re talking about what is going to be a very sought-after job.”
Several executives inside and outside the game describe three major tracks the owners could go within those various skill sets: another current owner, following the path Selig traveled; an internal staff candidate such as executive vice presidents Rob Manfred and Tim Brosnan; or an outside executive (See candidates who could be in the mix).
Given the insular culture of baseball, many industry executives see the latter option as unlikely.
“It’s hard to see an outside candidate getting this,” said a financial executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his ongoing relationship with MLB. “The internal culture of the league presents such a steep learning curve to anyone not part of it.”
Also undetermined is whether MLB will conduct its succession search process anything like the more formal effort the NFL used in 2006 to select Roger Goodell to replace Paul Tagliabue or the more direct appointment that has NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver as the designated successor to David Stern effective Feb. 1, 2014.
As of now, expectations veer more toward what the NBA did.
“I don’t see this turning into a beauty contest,” Schiller said. “Whatever is on Bud’s mind, ultimately, is what will drive this. He will drive this process, and he’s a very thoughtful person.”
Selig admitted as much, saying he’s begun to give the matter extensive consideration, but hasn’t tipped his internal thinking to anyone.
“I don’t really have any comment about it. I haven’t talked to anybody about it. I’ve done a lot of thinking about it,” Selig said. “But it’s premature to say anything else about it. I’m going to handle this in a very quiet and thoughtful way.”
Another wild-card option mentioned by some owners is simply selecting a successor on a temporary basis, in essence naming another acting commissioner while buying themselves additional time for a more formal search.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss?
For all the movement now developing toward a post-Selig era, there are those in the game still not ready to let him go.
After all, Selig was firmly set to retire at the end of the 2012 season, with precisely the same mindset as now. It was only about 12 months prior that owners, seeing the calendar about to turn to that year, initiated recruiting to get him to stay. Several weeks later, the persuasion efforts worked and Selig agreed to another two-year term.
Several team executives said the first step may be to again wait as long as possible and press Selig for another decision.
“If I have a say, I want Bud to continue on,” said Derrick Hall, Arizona Diamondbacks president and chief executive. “I would hope we try another renewal. I would think the initial approach would be the same as the last time.”
Selig’s comments aside, there is plenty of evidence toward supporting such a move. The league as a whole is thriving.
Selig himself is in great health for his age, and boasts a daily workout streak at more than 1,700 consecutive days and counting. Those who have seen him work an exercise bike marvel at his continued vigor. Similarly, Sue is also in good health. And the compensation package, estimated at somewhere around $30 million per year and including a private jet at his disposal, certainly doesn’t hurt.
And then there are those who believe any process started too early can have detrimental effects, despite the counterargument presented by the NBA’s orderly, planned transition to Silver.
“You can start these types of things too early sometimes,” said former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane. The first MLB owners meeting McLane attended was the September 1992 session where Selig became acting commissioner. “I don’t think this will be a situation where there will be a commissioner-in-waiting for an extended period of time.”
The other argument in favor of Selig staying is the late Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner. Landis served 24 years, and if Selig can make it in office through 2016, he’ll have Landis beat and become the longest-serving commissioner in baseball history.
In the end, owners expect Selig to govern his succession process with the oft-repeated phrase of “the best interests of baseball.”
“Regardless of what ends up happening, he’s going to put the game before himself,” Hall said. “That we can definitely count on.”
Photo by:Lavonne Hall
Executive vice president, economics and league affairs
Major League Baseball
The skinny: The league’s longtime lead labor lawyer has seen his stature improve considerably over the last two years as he has run point for MLB on critical league issues such as the Los Angeles Dodgers bankruptcy, local TV contract issues with both the Dodgers and Washington Nationals, and ongoing talks with the MLB Players Association on combating performance-enhancing drugs. Manfred is essentially the baseball executive most comparable to NBA Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver, the designated successor to David Stern, and probably the nearest thing that exists to a clubhouse leader this early in the process.
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Executive vice president, business
Major League Baseball
The skinny: Since the departure of MLB President Bob DuPuy in 2010, Brosnan has essentially run the business of baseball while Manfred has handled the administration. And like Manfred, Brosnan has seen his stature grow substantially as a result. Brosnan in 2012 posted a career year with the signing of new national TV contracts, the completion of a lucrative new contract with beer sponsor Anheuser-Busch, and marked growth of the MLB Fan Cave. A vote for Brosnan instead of Manfred would be one signifying the importance of revenue growth.
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Former U.S. senator (D-N.D.); steering committee member, Campaign To Fix The Debt
The skinny: The husband of MLB lobbyist Lucy Calautti, Conrad fashioned much of his political career around fiscal issues and remains actively involved on that topic on a nonpartisan, advocacy basis. But Conrad is essentially a free agent following his retirement from the Capitol. As commissioner, he would give baseball further standing in Washington, always a critical element in the health of any major sports league.
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The skinny: Bud Selig went from the Brewers’ owner chair to running the league. So how about a repeat? Attanasio is well-regarded around the league, particularly with his ability to compete regularly on the field and surpass 3 million in annual attendance in what is baseball’s smallest media market. Attanasio sits on five league committees, including influential ownership, labor and finance panels, and quietly and steadily has become an influential voice in the sport’s inner circle.
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San Francisco Giants
The skinny: Baer has done a highly admirable job running the Giants, leading the once-moribund franchise to two World Series titles and an industry leadership position on a wide range of emerging trends such as next-generation facility enhancements and digital ticketing. Baer also boasts a varied background in media, marketing and development, giving him a diverse skill set that could apply well to the job. Easily comfortable in front of a camera or microphone, Baer would have no trouble with the immense public demands of the commissioner job.
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The skinny: A member of Selig’s 2000 Blue Ribbon Committee on Baseball Economics, Levin is well-versed on the revenue disparity issues in the game that in many ways are beginning to resurface as a result of local TV. The Blue Ribbon Committee’s report was not particularly well-received by the union, but at Yale for the past two decades, Levin knows his way around a labor contract as he has presided over what is essentially a diversified, multibillion-dollar operation. The 65-year-old Levin plans to retire from the university in June.
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The skinny: Dombrowski is among a select group of club presidents who came up as a baseball operations executive, giving him experience on both sides of a team organization. Well-respected in the game, the Tigers under Dombrowski boast two American League pennants in the past seven years and routinely post attendance and revenue totals beyond what economically battered Detroit should seemingly be able to deliver. Dombrowski carries a calm, decisive demeanor that immediately conveys a sense of leadership.
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Boston Red Sox
The skinny: A longtime baseball insider, the television magnate has sat on many of the league’s key committees, including the Executive Council and MLB Enterprises board, and as a result has had an active hand in most every significant change in the game. Recent high-profile setbacks in Boston aside, the Red Sox and Fenway Park remain far stronger for the involvement of Werner and partners John Henry and Larry Lucchino. A Werner bid would need to convey sensitivity to smaller market clubs operating in a far different economic strata than the Red Sox.
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The skinny: A lower-profile executive compared to many other comparable club leaders, McGuirk nonetheless garners plenty of respect among his colleagues inside the game. Chairman of MLB’s media committee, McGuirk has leveraged his TV background to help shepherd the growth of the MLB Network and the league’s overall media profile.
A pressing issue in the mid- and late 1990s, expanded revenue sharing and the marked growth of jointly held assets such as MLB Advanced Media have improved balance on and off the field considerably in more recent years. As a result, nine different teams have won the last 12 World Series. But mammoth local TV contracts, such as the $7 billion pact the Los Angeles Dodgers are trying to close with Time Warner, threaten to upset the hard-won gains and expose polarities in market size and overall revenue.
As Bud Selig himself has said, the cheats haven’t stopped trying to develop new, undetectable performance enhancers, so baseball can’t stop its vigilance either. MLB this year will begin in-season blood testing for human growth hormone, a first for any major U.S. pro sports league. Those efforts will need to be continually refined, as will the penalty structure that is now the subject of collective bargaining between the league and MLB Players Association.
MLB has set its national TV landscape through 2021 as a result of last year’s contract extensions with ESPN, Fox and Turner, and attendance continues to track at near-peak levels historically. So where are the next vanguards of revenue growth, particularly on a national level where proceeds are shared equally among clubs? MLB Advanced Media, the MLB Network and international growth will each be key factors in that effort. But the next commissioner will be looked upon to find additional revenue streams to keep the sport’s monetary acceleration going.
With the league’s study of the Oakland A’s stadium situation now entering a fifth year, who’s to say the interminable slog will be over before the end of Selig’s contract term in December 2014? The core issues are the same as they’ve ever been: the A’s need to get out of the O.Co Coliseum, an aged multipurpose stadium that doesn’t generate sufficient revenue for long-term health, and want to move to San Jose. The San Francisco Giants hold territorial rights to the Silicon Valley hub, and have no intention of ceding that. And an agreeable compromise has not emerged.
This is another problematic facility situation with no promise of a quick fix. The Tampa Bay Rays, in the words of Selig, have been a “model franchise,” with five straight winning seasons, three playoff berths, and a stellar industry reputation for identifying and developing young talent. But the Tropicana Dome cannot hope to generate the revenue necessary in today’s big-money MLB, and the city of St. Petersburg has refused to allow the club to relocate out of the jurisdiction before the end of its lease in 2027.
The World Baseball Classic, now with three tournaments in the books, continues to show steady growth, and the league is always expanding its overseas footprint, particularly in the Caribbean and Far East. But much more remains to be done. Significant opportunity, and work, still lay ahead in areas such as central and Eastern Europe, China and South America where baseball has not been strong historically. Selig has frequently spoken of his hope for a “true” World Series where the MLB champion plays against Japan’s title winner from Nippon Professional Baseball. But turning that to reality will likely lie with his successor.
Baseball’s all-time hits leader desperately wants to have his lifetime ban from baseball removed, and he has plenty of hall of famers in his corner. But Rose hasn’t helped his case much over the years, pursuing various questionable initiatives such as a tell-all book, casino relationships and reality TV shows all in the name of money. So Selig has kept Rose’s penalty the same as it’s been since 1989. A new commissioner will likely face renewed calls to take a fresh look at the case. More immediately, the Cincinnati Reds will host the 2015 All-Star Game and likely will want their beloved star to have a role in the festivities.
Not nearly as thorny as the drug, revenue or facility issues, but a glut of clubs want to play host to an All-Star Game and enjoy the various sales and recognition benefits it brings. This year’s game will be at Citi Field in New York, followed by Minnesota’s Target Field in 2014 and Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati in 2015. After that is undetermined, and Washington, Miami, San Diego, Baltimore, Philadelphia, the Chicago Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers are all coveting a game. Selig’s successor will need to find a workable sequence.
Kenesaw Mountain Landis
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Landis became professionally involved with baseball in 1914, when he presided over the Federal League’s injunction suit against the major leagues. After the 1919 World Series scandal, he was approached about becoming baseball’s first commissioner. Landis tried to free the game from gamblers and corruption and banned eight White Sox players involved in the scandal. He later suspended Babe Ruth and Bob Meusel of the New York Yankees for 40 games for “barnstorming” without permission.
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Chandler, a former governor and U.S. senator from Kentucky, saw baseball’s color barrier broken during his tenure as commissioner when Jackie Robinson became the first black player in Major League Baseball. In 1947, the league created the player pension fund with money Chandler used from a three-year, $475,000 contract for radio rights to the World Series. He later negotiated a six-year, $6 million contract for television rights to the World Series and All-Star Game. That money also went directly into the player pension fund.
Frick, a former sportswriter and broadcaster, served as president of the National League from 1934 until he was elected commissioner. During his tenure, the American and National leagues each grew from eight to 10 teams. Today, the Ford C. Frick Award is presented annually to a broadcaster for major contributions to the sport. Frick also is credited with helping establish the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
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In 1957, Eckert was named lieutenant general and became the youngest three-star officer in the U.S. armed forces. When he retired from the Air Force in 1961, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. During his three years as commissioner, Eckert helped promote the game internationally and in 1966 arranged a tour of Japan for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
MLB saw the expansion of six teams during Kuhn’s tenure, but perhaps the most significant event was the Curt Flood reserve case of 1970. The case ended up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the lower courts’ ruling that federal antitrust laws did not apply to the game. In 1975, players were granted the right to free agency for the first time.
Ueberroth served as president and CEO of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the first privately financed Olympic Games. During his first year as commissioner, he helped prevent an umpires strike during the playoffs. By his last year in office, every MLB team was either breaking even or finishing in the black financially — 21 of the then 26 clubs were losing money when he entered the position. Ueberroth brokered a four-year, $1.1 billion contract with CBS, and a four-year, $400 million deal with ESPN.
Giamatti’s time as commissioner is probably best known for his decision to ban all-time hit leader Pete Rose for life for Rose’s involvement in gambling on baseball games. Giamatti’s untimely death occurred just eight days after the Rose announcement, thus making his tenure, just under a year, the shortest for a commissioner.
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Vincent served as baseball’s first deputy commissioner, a position created by Giamatti. After only a month on the job as commissioner, a massive earthquake in the San Francisco Bay area disrupted the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A’s. In 1990, Opening Day was postponed for a week due to a 32-day player lockout. Teams in Miami and Denver were added to the league under Vincent’s watch.