SBJ/Aug. 18-24, 2014/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Five key issues that Rob Manfred will face

It was a long, tense day at the Hyatt Regency Baltimore last Thursday.

A meeting that started at 8:30 a.m. ended at roughly 6 p.m. when Rob Manfred was named MLB’s 10th commissioner. The longtime MLB executive will lead baseball during a pivotal point in history.

SBJ Podcast:
Baseball writer Eric Fisher and Executive Editor Abraham Madkour discuss the vote in Baltimore and the challenges Rob Manfred faces as the new MLB commissioner.

MLB is awash in record revenue, soaring franchise values, historic competitive balance, tech innovation, and boasts an appealing global game. The state of the game is strong compared with 20, 10 or even five years ago.

But the prevailing undercurrent of last week’s vote reflected a perception of a future that’s much more uncertain, and the quest of how best to position baseball in a rapidly shifting media and entertainment landscape.

The three finalists for the commissioner job each made lengthy presentations to team owners focused on boosting the sport’s relevancy against that more tenuous backdrop.

“Baseball has a lot of issues in front of it, and each of [the finalists] had real ideas on how to address them in different ways,” Miami Marlins President David Samson said.

These are five key issues that Manfred will inherit when he takes over for the retiring Bud Selig in January.

PACE OF GAME

The No. 1 complaint with MLB’s on-field product: The average time to play a regular-season game has stubbornly stayed around three hours for years, despite continued efforts to hasten play.

The independent Atlantic League has seen notable success this season with its own pace-of-play efforts, shaving 20 minutes off its average time of games thus far to 2:39. The Atlantic League’s measures include fewer warm-up pitches at the start of each inning, a prohibition on hitters leaving the batter’s box, a strict enforcement on umpires calling the entire strike zone, and managers simply holding up four fingers to issue an intentional walk. MLB’s instructional and fall leagues provide a fertile ground to experiment with many of these ideas.

Instant replay is also tied into this discussion, and despite generally positive reviews for the introduction this season of a widely expanded system, tweaks are being considered to streamline the process.

REVENUE SHARING

The last 15 years of revenue sharing has helped do wonders to improve baseball’s on-field competitive balance, but club unrest is growing on how the system should be adapted to a new era of sharply escalating local TV rights fees. What is specifically subject to revenue sharing lies at the root of the media rights dispute involving the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. And many owners remain irate that all but about $2 billion of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ blockbuster $8.3 billion TV deal with Time Warner Cable is exempt from revenue sharing.

A revenues sharing definitions committee attempted to arbitrate the MASN dispute, but the makeup and outcome of that three-owner panel is now in the New York State Supreme Court. A much larger discussion on what should be taxed for revenue-sharing purposes will be a core element of coming labor talks with the MLB Players Association in 2016.

YOUTH

Another point of focus during last week’s commissioner candidate presentations: MLB holds one of the oldest average audiences among major U.S. sports leagues.

Several successful initiatives are helping attract younger fans to baseball, including the Fan Cave and the sport’s extensive digital deployment through MLB Advanced Media. But in order to boost flattening attendance and national TV audiences, much more will need to be done to engage under-25 fans.

Oakland, like Tampa, plays in an outdated stadium with no replacement in the works.
Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
OAKLAND AND TAMPA

One way to think about a sports league is like a chain that is only as strong as its weakest links. And these two franchises, despite being regularly competitive on the field, play in badly outdated facilities with no pending plans for either new ballparks or extensive rehabilitation projects.

A glimmer of hope now exists in Oakland after a recent 10-year lease extension for the O.co Coliseum, and growing whispers the co-tenant Raiders could head back to Los Angeles and in turn open up the stadium for A’s owner Lew Wolff to redevelop. Such a move would also make moot the long-running territorial debate with the San Francisco Giants over the San Jose market. But solutions for either franchise never emerged during the Selig era.

DRUGS

Baseball has the toughest testing and penalty program in U.S. professional sports, but the recent Biogenesis episode exposed significant flaws in the program, and how far some players will go to conceal use of performance enhancing substances. Many of the suspended players in that case never failed a drug test, and investigative procedures to determine nonanalytic positives will require continued refinement. MLB and the union before this season issued a series of toughened drug provisions, including increased suspensions and closing of loopholes that allowed suspended players to still receive some pay. It’s safe to say that such announcements will continue.

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