Manfred Ready to Step Up to the Plate

In-market streaming of games and adding more technology to TV broadcasts are among the incoming MLB commissioner’s early goals

Many baseball fans don’t yet know the name Rob Manfred, but come January, he will hold the most important job in the sport as he takes over as commissioner of Major League Baseball from Bud Selig, who held the post for 22 years.

Manfred’s succession will mark the second time in a 12-month span that a major professional league will see a change at the top; Adam Silver succeeded David Stern in the NBA’s top office last February.

Ahead of ascending to baseball’s premier post, Manfred spoke with B&C associate editor Tim Baysinger about his early goals as commissioner and how baseball can get an injection of younger viewers. An edited transcript follows.

How did this season help prepare you for taking over as commissioner next year?

I think the opportunity to serve as COO helped me continue what had been an ongoing process of broadening my portfolio to include all aspects of the business.

There have been a number of projects, but in particular the ongoing discussions about streaming and the renewal of the network affiliation agreements. Both projects that I spent a lot of time on just continued what has been a process of me moving from labor into economics, then into really all areas of the business.

When you take over in January, what are your early goals as commissioner?

I am intent on finishing the process of making sure that in-market streaming is available to our fans. We’ve worked very hard on the project, and we’re going to continue to work on it. I’d like to get that done and out of the way.

We will have a substantial reorganization of the office that will be in place early next year. The goal of that reorganization is to present baseball to the marketplace in a much more unified and streamlined structure.

Baseball’s audience skews fairly old; how can MLB bring in younger viewers?

I think the long-term effort has to be directed at increasing youth participation. Our statistics analysis shows that the biggest determinate of fan avidity is whether somebody plays as a kid. I think you will see a number of programs focused on increasing youth participation.

In the short-term, we have a great technology company that’s part of MLB. We’re going to make sure we do everything we possibly can to integrate our technology assets into our game broadcasts.

Commissioner Selig had his fair share of controversy during his tenure. Do you think it’s possible for any commissioner to avoid controversy? Does it come with the job?

I think controversy is part of the job description. The job of the commissioner is to try to minimize the publicity surrounding controversies and resolve them as quickly and effectively as possible.

With all major sports locked into highpriced rights deals well through the next decade, what does it say about the value of live sports to the TV marketplace?

Both the national and local TV deals that you’ve seen in our sport are reflective of the fact that in many ways our content is unique and that it’s of great value to broadcasters. That’s something for which we need to thank our lucky stars.

The rapid expansion of digital and mobile properties has upended the traditional TV model. However, sports has been immune, being among the only consistent drivers of large viewership. How does baseball stay ahead of the digital curve?

The value of our content in terms of people’s desire to consume it live is an important asset in terms of maintaining the current cable model. That’s why people continue to pay high rights fees.

By the same token, I think it’s very important for us to continue to develop the MLB.com technology side of our business so that we’re prepared to deal with changes that eventually come down the road.

You’ve obviously learned a lot working under Selig, but what’s one way you two are different?

I have the greatest respect for commissioner Selig and the way that he governed the game, particularly at the point in time that he took over the game.

I think as a general proposition my leadership style will be more club participatory than the commissioner’s, particularly in recent years.

One of Selig’s more notable moves was awarding World Series home-field advantage to the winning league of the All-Star Game. Is that something you think should continue?

I think it’s hard to argue with the proposition. That change has altered the quality of the play in the All-Star Game; the way players have approached the game. I think that’s a positive for us in terms of the way the game is played and in terms of the TV product.

Pace of game has become a big issue in recent years. How do you plan to address this?

The commissioner [Selig] recognized it was an issue and appointed a committee.

In [Arizona Fall League play] we tested a number of really interesting proposals. Probably the most aggressive of those involved the use of a clock to measure the time between pitches. But we also put a clock on inning breaks and pitching changes in an effort to tighten those issues up.

We use the rule in the Fall League where the batter couldn’t leave the batters box, cutting down on downtime. We’ve even experimented with things like an automatic pass for an intentional walk as opposed to throwing four pitches. I think that you will see a long-term effort to incorporate some or all of these into the game and address the pace of game issues.

What are some other ways MLB can work with its TV partners to make for a better viewing experience?

Another important issue for our TV partners is access to our players, particularly access during the game via microphones or interviews. This will be a topic we will continue to work closer with our broadcast partners in order to enhance the content in the broadcast.

MLB.com has developed a really interesting product that tracks the movements of players on a field in ways that has not been done before. I think technology like that, making it available to our broadcast partners so they can make our TV product more appealing, is very important.