Man of his word: MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred opens up about state of baseball
Major League Baseball completed an eventful regular season that included memorable individual moments (like Astros right-hander Justin Verlander pitching his third career no-hitter), super teams in major markets (the Astros, Dodgers and Yankees each topped 100 wins), emerging young stars (among them 40-40 candidate Ronald Acuna Jr. of the Braves and Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) and exciting new possibilities for the game (the first London Series, between the Yankees and Red Sox, was a notable success).
But it also included declining attendance for the sixth time in seven years, ongoing concerns about the pace of both play and action, and even questions about the ball itself following another record season for home runs. All are factors that have contributed to a narrative that the sport needs significant changes. Last week, Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke with Sports Business Journal for a wide-ranging, one-on-one discussion about the state of the game. (Note: Edited for brevity.)
How do you go about crafting a narrative that the sport is not dying?
Manfred: We draw 68 million people roughly at the big league level. We are going to draw another 41-plus in minor league baseball. Minor league baseball is up from last year. We may be down about 1%. But 110 million people are watching baseball live. I’ll take that number. I don’t think that is an indication of a dying sport.
How dramatic will some of the changes to the game be in 2020?
Manfred: I expect the two big ones will be the change in the roster size — we’re going to have 28 players maximum available during September as opposed to 40. That is a huge change. The three-batter minimum (for pitchers), I need to go back to the owners on this still. We have the right to do it from the MLBPA next year. I’m in favor of it. I think pitching changes, particularly mid-inning pitching changes, are something that really slow the game down and are something our fans don’t like. We know that from our research. The combination of those two things would be significant.
On pace of play, there is the actual length of a game — an average of a little more than three hours — and the pace, the actual action in the game. Which is the bigger issue?
Manfred: To me, it’s the action in the game. That’s the entertainment value of the product. If you have a 12-10 game, there could be tons of action and it could be tremendously entertaining. But you’re not going to bring that in in 2:32, you know?
When you consider the actual game on the field, is what we have seen this record-breaking home run season the best form of entertaining baseball?
Manfred: Our game on the field, with the way it has changed the last few years, has caused a lot of conversation. And I think there is an emerging consensus that we need to do a little better job managing that change. We can make our product better on the field by making tweaks to the game — I’m not talking about revolutionary changes — that make it look a little more like it has looked historically.
What are your postseason expectations for TV ratings?
Manfred: I expect that we will get good ratings, and I expect that really for two reasons. Ratings all year long [were] strong. And I think we have some great stories going into the postseason. Obviously the iconic franchises — the Dodgers, the Yankees — very exciting. Houston, another big market, has been a great story all year long. And there’s some real interesting stories in some of our smaller markets.
How does the Sinclair deal change things for MLB, and do you wish you had done anything differently in your bid for the RSNs?
Manfred: Interestingly, I’m kind of positive on the outcome of that process for a couple reasons. No. 1, we learned a ton — it was a very educational process for us. No. 2, I think if we weren’t going to win, Sinclair was a good outcome for us. Obviously, their other businesses, the leverage they have as a result of the retransmission leverage, is really important in terms of distribution of those RSNs. And obviously we want full distribution. But we’ve formed a nice working relationship with Chris Ripley [Sinclair’s president and CEO], and have had a lot of conversations with him about how we can work with Sinclair to make sure that it is as positive an outcome as possible. Having said that, obviously Fox has been a great partner for us nationally and locally. It’s a big change. But we think it can be a positive.
Is it inevitable that clubs will be able to sell their digital rights to local broadcasts?
Manfred: Part of the original compact when MLB Advanced Media was created was that when digital distribution mechanisms became a substitute for local broadcasts, that those rights were going to revert. The exact package is to be determined. But I think most people think we are either at or darn near that point of substitution. So I think we will see a change in that area.
Do you have a sense of how soon that could be?
Manfred: The best I can do for you on that because it’s a governance issue is that I think this is a sooner rather than later issue. It’s not years away.
MLBPA talks about the need for more “competitive integrity,” pointing to too many clubs rebuilding. Is this an issue?
Manfred: This narrative that the MLBPA has given is not supported by the facts. It’s a self-interest issue, and I’m not being critical. They have a job. They obviously are trying to create a predicate for bargaining. If you look at the mix of teams that are [still in contention], we have small market clubs like Milwaukee, Minnesota, Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa Bay. I don’t see it. I think the competitive integrity is a synonym for the MLBPA thinking that 33-year-old free agents should get paid more.
Are you concerned about the lack of free agent movement the past couple years?
Manfred: My fundamental answer to that question is that the MLBPA has always wanted a market-based system. That’s what they bargained for. That’s what they got. But again, in terms of analyzing that market, it’s really important to focus on the facts. We spent $3.8 billion in the last offseason on guaranteed contracts. It is the highest number ever, OK? We spent $1.8 billion on free agents in guaranteed salaries and that’s the second-highest ever. Those are robust market numbers for buying people out of free agency and we’re signing free agents to record numbers. There is no response to those fundamental numbers, right?
On the expansion front, you’ve said 32 is a great number. Do the stadium issues need to first be resolved in Tampa Bay and Oakland before expansion moves any further?
Manfred: I think it’s a practical matter, and the answer to that is yes. To be in a situation where we have unresolved franchise problems and the potential at least for a relocation, to have expansion talks going on at the same time, it’s just too much all at once.
MLB has had such success in London and Mexico, do you anticipate in the next decade being able to have a club in Europe or Mexico?
Manfred: Just because of the geographics, Mexico is probably more likely. I think another club — and we still have Toronto — outside the United States would be a good thing for our game, and I think it’s kind of a natural progression with the international efforts we’ve undertaken.
Analytics have taken over the game and changed the game. Do you think it has done so at the cost of marginalizing gut instinct involved in baseball?
Manfred: The one thing that has been 100% true, beyond debate, is analytics are here to stay because of those who believe that analytics help teams win. The issue with analytics is — and this is on us — have we done a good job managing the change that analytics have brought to the game? That is an issue that is a responsibility of the owners in the league to make sure that we don’t let analytics alter the game in a way that is unpopular.
You referenced some possible tweaks to the game. Does one possibility include the ball itself?
Manfred: We have a significant study of the ball, the manufacturing process, ongoing. That report should be finalized after the World Series. I’m just going to withhold comment on that until we get that report.