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Volume 21 No. 1
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MLB roundtable: Writing the next chapter

All photos by: PATRICK E. MCCARTHY
Major League Baseball begins the 2017 season from a period of historic strength, buoyed by continued labor peace, strong core metrics, and large TV audiences during last year’s postseason, including a World Series Game 7 that was the most-watched baseball game of any type in a quarter-century. From that foundation, MLB and its various media and business partners have sought to push forward on several key areas, including on-field pace of play changes, in-market streaming, and showcasing the sport’s emerging talent.

SportsBusiness Journal earlier this month arranged a roundtable discussion in our New York offices and gathered three key executives to discuss the current and future state of baseball: MLB Chief Operating Officer Tony Petitti, New York Mets Executive Vice President Lou DePaoli, and ESPN Executive Vice President Burke Magnus. Here are highlights from their wide-ranging discussion with SportsBusiness Journal baseball writer Eric Fisher.

What is being done to take advantage of the groundswell of new interest in the sport that arrived last October?

TONY PETITTI: You may want to focus on the last two weeks of the season, but the way I look at it, it was something we were just building toward throughout the year, in part because of the tremendous young players we have in the game right now. That’s been a big focal point of ours. We’ve got a really interesting and exciting crop of young stars that are just so dynamic. They’re really appealing, they’re in a lot of great markets, that combination is terrific, and you saw that culminate with the type of World Series that we had. And of course, we had an incredible story with the Cubs and that type of generational event.

MLB now has a long-range planning committee as part of the organizational restructuring implemented by Commissioner Rob Manfred. Where does that panel fit into this notion of trying to take advantage of last fall?

PETITTI: The commissioner has been very clear that all of us in the central office have an obligation to look at the game, every aspect of it on the field, off the field, how we market the game, how the game is played, all of those things, and be inclusive. And that inclusiveness is also taking feedback from fans, avid or casual, and to work with our ownership, to work with our baseball operations folks, our players, and our broadcast partners, all across the board. The idea is to take all of that information, be as informed as you can, and see directionally where you need to go.

First Look podcast, with MLB 2017 discussion at 14:35 mark:

PLAYER ACCESS, MARKETING

The Mets are certainly a focal point of this emphasis on youth, particularly with the current group of starting pitchers. How is the club managing the heightened demands on those players, both day to day and long term?

LOU DePAOLI: Our young pitchers are getting pulled in a lot of different directions, which is great. We just need to make sure we manage that effectively to put them in the right place so we don’t burn them out, but still get the maximum exposure so we can help them, help our brand, help MLB, and help our broadcast partners, and make sure we’re doing the right thing by everybody involved.

“We’re a powerful brand and we have tremendous numbers of people coming to us, either at the ballpark or on TV, digitally, or other platforms. But in today’s world, it’s still about how can you expand your reach.

TONY PETITTI
CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, MLB

PETITTI: Just to piggyback on that, we’re very storyline focused. We need to market the young players, and we’re absolutely doing that. But I think we’re trying in part to do that through developing storylines. You react to what happened at the end of last season, and you carry that forward.

BURKE MAGNUS: We know that sports are cyclical and that something like last year’s postseason happens from time to time, and if you don’t capitalize on it, you’re missing out. From where we sit, it is definitely an opportunity. You’ve got a lot of very good teams, and a crop of transcendent, marketable, personable players to work with. To be able to grow on that and the number of casual fans that got swept up in the postseason, reconnecting with baseball for some of them, is an important sign.

We continually hear complaints that baseball doesn’t do enough to market individual players. Is that fair or warranted, particularly when considering the time demands baseball players have compared to other sports?

PETITTI: I don’t think it’s fair. … The teams particularly are doing things every day to get the players out there. Players are interacting with the media and the fans every day at the ballpark, and I think they do a lot. We do a lot with them in the offseason, we’ve been shooting a great deal of things during spring training. ESPN, Fox, the RSNs, the teams, they’re all doing their things. But baseball is definitely a different sport. You play every day, and what makes a great player is the ability to go out and do it day after day on a consistent basis. So even how you evaluate players is different.

MAGNUS: I think it’s a reflex criticism that’s been around for a while, and may have been true at one point, but I feel is certainly not true today. Just finding time for the guys to be accessible amid 162 games is difficult. And it’s different than things like the NBA. There, you have a player like LeBron James who’s on the court maybe 80 to 85 percent of every single game, with a high degree of reliability for both an avid fan or a casual fan of a good to very good to excellent performance. That is a very different proposition to how baseball operates.

DePAOLI: From a team perspective, I know we’re doing a lot more with our players than we have at any of my other [career] stops. But baseball is a different sport. It’s not a one player-dominant sport. Just our team, the Mets, we could roll out eight, nine different guys that all have star quality value that sponsors want to deal with, people want to talk to, people want to hear from. It’s a different animal, but we have a lot more out there that we’re doing. Besides somebody like [Noah] Syndergaard, you also have your [Yoenis] Cespedes, your David Wright, you have other players, and we’re getting them out there pretty frequently.

Petitti, Magnus and DePaoli all agreed attention is focused on how fans consume the sport and how the sport is presented..
MAGNUS: The closest thing to an individual situation from our perspective is a dominant pitcher or a great pitching matchup, where a Clayton Kershaw can be appointment viewing for a casual sports fan. That’s the closest thing you get in baseball to an individual circumstance, relative to how you market a particular matchup and how you draw in the widest array of fans. … You want to use every arrow in the quiver to draw people in, but dominant pitching performances and special pitching matchups become more marketable.

We’ve seen baseball look to get into various forms of pop culture, such as David Ross competing this coming season on “Dancing With the Stars,” and the new promotional tie-in with HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” Is this an accelerating strategy for the sport?

PETITTI: It’s important, and all about expanding your reach. Whether it’s a social media platform that’s aggregating a lot of people, or other forms of entertainment that aggregate a lot of different types of people, and we look to engage in those types of partnerships. We’re a powerful brand and we have tremendous numbers of people coming to us, either at the ballpark or on TV, digitally, or other platforms. But in today’s world, it’s still about how can you expand your reach, and are there creative, strategic partnerships out there where we can access fans that may not be coming to us right now.

FAN ENGAGEMENT, PACE OF PLAY

What is your level of progress attracting millennials?

DePAOLI: On the facility side, we’re continuing to make those changes to fit the need of the younger fan, and really, all fans. At Citi Field, we’ve done a lot of different things over the years, starting from when it was first built. You’ve seen the popularity of the standing areas grow and grow, and we’ve built more. We’ve had great partners like Coca-Cola and Budweiser build more areas last year, and those areas became very popular just by activating space in the ballpark and fans go up there and have a good time. It’s become so much more of a social experience, that it’s important for us to remain flexible enough to move and change our inventory to capture that. You see other teams doing the same thing.

MAGNUS: From a media perspective, it’s about creating players that are relevant to this audience. Bryce Harper’s a cool guy. Syndergaard’s a cool guy. He’s got the hair, the lifestyle. And you want to make them relatable as possible to the current generation. I have a 17-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl in my home now and I kind of pick their brains on why they find certain players interesting, and it’s all about how they relate to them. A certain guy, for example, that might be really active in a cool way on social media that doesn’t seem like it’s forced. And we also try to innovate from a production perspective to tell their stories. Like Tony was saying, at the end of the day, sports is about storytelling.

It’s not like people aren’t renewing season tickets or our partners aren’t doing business with us because the game is a few minutes longer.”

LOU DePAOLI
EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, NEW YORK METS
The offseason and spring training have been dominated by talk around pace of play and MLB’s desire to have a crisper product. What is your research actually telling you in terms of fan attention and drop-off?

PETITTI: We’re in the middle of a long look at that now, taking an extensive qualitative and quantitative analysis of everything, how fans interact with the game and how they interact with media, and not just our content but all content. Where is the competition for people’s time and attention? What is working elsewhere that could be applied to our sport? We’re in that process of doing that now, and it will be extremely helpful in guiding the things we’re doing around the ballparks, on the field, with our players, with our broadcasters, and so forth.

MAGNUS: We remain laser focused on time spent viewing, and we believe that a crisper presentation with not only the competition itself but also the commercialization will be helpful, and we’re looking within a number of properties at innovations in and around that commercialization related to sports, and how can we rely not just on the 30-second spot for the rest of humanity. We don’t get involved in the competition side of the sport but we generally encourage any innovation related to the presentation of the sport.

PETITTI: It’s not just Major League Baseball. Other professional leagues, college sports, they’re all wrestling with this. It’s not a unique problem for us. Viewership habits are changing, the way people interact with each other is changing, cable TV models are obviously changing, and it makes a lot of sense to learn as much as you can from your constituents and your audience while that is happening, and that is what we’re in the process of doing.

Audio is also an area we’re incredibly interested in, trying to increase the ambient sound of the game, and getting a better sense of the speed and athleticism and power of our players when you hear the game better. We think that’s a tremendous opportunity and we have a group that we’re organizing with all of our broadcasters and RSNs to study audio and how we want to mike ballparks going forward.

DePAOLI: We do a lot of surveying of fans in the park, and with the Mets, our average time of game went from 2:58 to 3:04 last year and we’re not hearing a large outcry from anybody, to be quite honest. It’s not like people aren’t renewing season tickets or our partners aren’t doing business with us because the game is a few minutes longer. I think it’s been more of a league issue. But what I did hear a few times this past year, for the first time really because I think this is now more top of mind for fans when they’re in the park, is fans getting impatient when a pitcher was slow getting the ball to the plate. People were literally saying, “Throw the ball. What are you waiting for? Throw. The. Ball.” So I think it’s a matter of the crispness to make this a more entertaining product.

TICKETING

Where do you see experimentation and innovation in ticketing going?

DePAOLI: It’s only going to continue to change. I started in baseball 25 years ago, and back then, if you were selling a half-season ticket plan or a 20-game plan, it was still sort of something new. Now you’re seeing all sorts of subscription models and mini-plans, trying anything and everything to get people engaged. Because what worked 20 years ago doesn’t necessarily work for everyone today. You need to innovate and keep testing things. I keep telling my team that no idea is a bad idea. If it works great, maybe we do it again. If it doesn’t, maybe it wasn’t the right offer, or maybe it was in the wrong channel. But at least we learn something.

Are you finding some of these ticket offers particularly resonating with nontraditional audiences?

DePAOLI: A younger audience is looking for a more casual experience. They’ll come and spend good money on tickets, but they’re the people that are more interested for most of the game in walking around, taking in the ambiance, maybe stop in center field, watch the game for an inning or so, walk over to left field, take in the game for a while there, and then in the fifth or sixth inning or so, if it’s close, sitting back down in their seat and watching the end. That’s what we see 81 times a year. People at that age range are hanging in the Coca-Cola Corner, Bud Light Landing, doing things like that, but it all changes when it comes to the playoffs. At that point, everybody is anchored in their seat during play.

“I have a 17-year-old boy and a 15-year-old girl in my home now and I pick their brains on why they find certain players interesting, and it’s all about how they relate to them.”

BURKE MAGNUS
EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT, ESPN
MEDIA

For years, baseball has often been judged solely on national-level postseason ratings, ignoring what happened all spring and summer on a regional level. Is that still an irritation within the sport, or has that been resolved?

PETITTI: We understand how strong our product is on the regional level, and I think the RSNs and our partners have done a good job explaining what has been happening there. But I think the proof is in the distribution model, and as it evolves you see how important this content is to these new platforms. Even though there may be some differences in how people access content, we know that baseball content is at the forefront of local content and what all these new distributors want. And it makes sense if you look at the numbers. In a lot of markets, we’re either No. 1 or No. 2, and this is powerful content if you’re sitting on the other side looking to reach customers through some new type of aggregation.

MAGNUS: We’re in a situation where we’re in this instant gratification world where a sports property is succeeding or failing based on a single overnight national rating. To do that for a single baseball game, whether that be a really important one like a World Series game or a regular-season game, is such a gross oversimplification of our business, and of their business. It’s the world we live in, and we participate in that. We send out press releases saying this, that, or the other. A lot of it is out of necessity because judgments are being made out of such a narrow piece of the pie.

What are the opportunities from in-market streaming?

DePAOLI: It’s early, and we need to see how that shakes out. We’ve had a lot of people ask us about it in the last couple of years. But to this point, there hasn’t been anybody stepping up in a major way, looking to get on board from an advertising/partnership standpoint. For the fans, though, it’s going to be great. It gives them an opportunity to have access to more games. This is a good thing. It’s going to help spread the gospel a bit more.

PETITTI: It makes a lot of sense from a fan access standpoint. This gives the flexibility for fans to take the game with them wherever they are. It’s basically a situation of us saying to fans that if they want to give us their time, we’re going to be where they are.

How are you balancing innovation with the traditions inherent in baseball?

PETITTI: There’s two parts to your question. One is innovation in the presentation of the game, like Burke was talking about, and you’re always pushing forward there. I don’t think tradition gets in the way of that at all. Fans are always eager for a new camera angle or hearing more than they heard before, and it’s why you increase your production levels for a big game. We all want to be closer to the game. The second part is the tradition versus changing the game on the field, and I think the commissioner has been very clear that the game is constantly evolving, and part of the question is how involved you want to be from the central office in those changes. And the commissioner has stated that as we take in player feedback, ownership feedback, baseball operations feedback, we can be in that change. And other leagues have done the same thing. I don’t think that’s a crazy position.