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Volume 20 No. 42
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Issues on MLB’s plate

The next commissioner of Major League Baseball will face no shortage of pressing issues, even with attendance, revenue and competitive balance each currently tracking at historically high levels.

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.