Last week, Major League Baseball’s 30 owners elected Rob Manfred as the new commissioner of baseball. Manfred will succeed Bud Selig, who will retire in January. Manfred has worked at MLB since 1998, first as executive vice president of labor relations and, most recently, as chief operating officer. Selig backed Manfred’s bid.
The election was more contentious than Manfred and Selig would have liked, after Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf proffered Boston Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner as as an alternative to Manfred. Reinsdorf reportedly believes that Manfred has been — and will continue to be — too soft on the players’ union, particularly on economic issues. Reinsdorf has been hankering for a hard salary cap since at least 1994, when he and Selig masterminded the players’ strike that cut short the season and nearly killed the league. Reinsdorf also feared losing power within the ownership ranks after Selig’s departure; he wanted a commissioner who would feel beholden to him. That move appears to have backfired.
For all of Reinsdorf’s concerns about Manfred not being tough enough with the players’ union, MLB has become a better place for owners since Manfred joined the league. Even as ratings for national broadcasts have declined, baseball’s revenues are exploding thanks to increasingly lucrative national TV deals (all told, MLB’s current contracts with Fox, TBS, and ESPN will pay the league $1.5 billion a year for eight seasons, beginning with this one). Local TV contract values have also exploded over the last five years, and MLB Advanced Media has only added revenue with the success of MLB Network and its At-Bat and Gameday apps. Revenue sharing has ensured that the sport is profitable for owners of teams in small markets too.
As all that revenue piles up, the owners are collectively taking home an increasingly larger piece of the pie: in 2000, MLB’s total revenue sat just under $4 billion, with less than $2 billion spent on player salaries. By 2012, the league’s revenues had grown to $7.5 billion, but payrolls plateaued at $3 billion. The trend continued into 2013 when revenues topped $8 billion.
Overall, the business of baseball is booming, even if not everyone who cares about baseball is content with the status quo. Not the owners. Not the players. Not the fans. As commissioner, Manfred serves at the pleasure of the owners, but the players and the fans are integral parts of the game’s success. Manfred must keep that in mind when he takes the helm.
To that end, we have a set of recommended action items for the new commissioner:
1. Grow the fan base: Baseball’s core fans are white, middled-aged men. The league has tried a variety of things to attract younger, more diverse fans — everything from the MLB Fan Cave to Off the Bat videos with players and celebrities to finding a new Face of MLB to replace the retiring Derek Jeter. The game needs to be available to fans where and how they access other entertainment options: on mobile, through apps, and streaming on multiple devices, but MLB currently blacks out local market games on those platforms. The broadcast blackout rules that keep fans from being able to watch any game they want when they want are antiquated and counterproductive. They need to be repealed or re-worked.
2. Don’t change the game just to grow the fan base: There’s a move among owners to quicken the pace of games, based on a fear that the timelessness of baseball is a factor in keeping younger fans away. But a typical NFL game has only 11 minutes of play action during a three-hour broadcast. There is no need to resort to gimmicks. MLB should enforce existing rules on the amount of time pitchers may take between pitches. Next season, it should also speed up the video review process by using more modern communications and better-trained review umpires. And make the review umpires accountable to a defined standard.
3. Step up efforts to bring African-American players back to the game: Black players now comprise just over eight percent of all MLB players, a far cry from the hey-day of the late 1970s when black players made up more than 25 percent of players on MLB rosters. The rising costs of youth sports and the lack of Division I NCAA baseball scholarships are often blamed. The league, through an on-field diversity task force, is trying to reverse the trend. More money, resources, and effort should be expended to make this happen. It will be good for the game and will help expand the fan base.
4. Repeal or amend rules that keep young talent from quickly reaching the majors: MLB imposes limits on how much each team can spend on players selected in the amateur draft and on players from outside the U.S. and Canada who join teams during the international signing period. The limits not only disadvantage small market teams by capping the amount they can spend on less expensive-high value prospects, they also create perverse incentives for teams to renege on contracts, as we saw this summer with top Houston Astros draft pick Brady Aiken and other players the team selected. Rules governing service time, arbitration and free agency also need amending to keep teams from improperly manipulating a player’s service time in a way that makes them cheaper and keeps them under club control.
5. Work with the U.S. government to to change rules on Cuban ballplayers: A Cuban ballplayer who establishes residency in a third country may then sign as a free agent with any MLB team. But one who seeks asylum in the United States and then declares his intent to play in the majors is subject to the amateur draft. The first player is in a position to make millions of dollars in the early part of his career. The second player is not. That creates incentives for Cuban players to flee to third countries, often with the help of human traffickers who then extract huge fees from the players under threat of violence. Yasiel Puig is one of baseball’s best young players – and one of its best stories. Reforming these rules will help ensure that in the future, ballplayers like him won’t have to repeat the harrowing journey he took out of Cuba and through Mexico just to make it to the Major Leagues.
6. Ban the Kiss Cam and ballpark proposals: Do we really need to see couples wildly kissing on a video scoreboard between innings? Or the men and women who are just friends and are now embarrassed to be shown to the whole crowd, not kissing? What about the gay and lesbian couples? They are rarely shown on kiss cams. As sports leagues move to embrace LGBT fans and players, do we need baseball teams enforcing hetero-normative standards about couples and relationships? No, we don’t. We don’t need any of it. Nor do we need teams facilitating the least-creative marriage proposal idea ever created. Baseball games are for baseball. Maybe some in-between dancing and stretching. A dot race or two. But keep the romance out of it.
Manfred was the consensus candidate to replace Selig as commissioner. A strong majority of owners supported his bid from the beginning. It took several rounds of voting, but when it became clear that Manfred had the necessary 23 votes, Reinsdorf threw his caucus behind Manfred to give him a unanimous final vote.
Manfred has to gain the trust of owners who supported Werner and build consensus as MLB moves toward its next collective bargaining agreement with the players. He must bring the Reinsdorf group of owners around to the view that the business of baseball is thriving because the owners and players have worked together to achieve labor peace since the 1994-1995 strike. Baseball’s current bargaining agreement expires after the 2016 season, and a return to a contentious relationship between players and owners, and the work stoppage that could result if their partnership sours, would be bad news for everyone who loves the game. It could also undermine any other positive changes Manfred makes.
Wendy Thurm is a freelance sportswriter based in San Francisco. Her work has appeared at FanGraphs, Sports On Earth, and ESPN.com, among other places. Follow her on Twitter at @hangingsliders.