Rob Manfred, the new commissioner of baseball, will step into his new job at the best and worst of times.
Bud Selig will leavs his office to his long-time assistant in January with the game enjoying unprecedented economic success with close to $9 billion in annual revenue, labor stability and lucrative TV deals that should carry it into the next decade. Franchise values have reached new heights with the Los Angeles Dodgers (thanks to a regional TV deal) carrying a $2.15 billion price tag. “I think if you’re an owner today,” former commissioner Fay Vincent told HardballTimes.com, “you want things to go just about the way they are.”
No doubt that was a reason the 55-year-old Manfred, Selig’s hand-picked successor, was elected to the job by owners on Thursday. It may seem that the sport could run on autopilot, maintaining peace — with players and among owners — and prosperity is never simple. There are serious challenges ahead.
For instance, what will the new commissioner do to increase attendance and polls that show fewer — and older — people are interested in it? A Harris Poll released in January showed that 35 percent of adults said football was their favorite sport; 14 percent named baseball. And the median age of viewers is going in the wrong direction. For 2013 World Series was 53.8, according to Sports Media Watch. That compares with 40.9 for viewers of the 2013 NBA Finals and 46 for the Stanley Cup finals that year.
Attendance has plateaued, as USA Today pointed out, after reaching an all-time high of 32,785 in 2007. So far this season, teams are averaging 30,386, down from 30,616 in 2013. The average time of a nine-inning game is 3 hours, 3 minutes. The sport’s showcase, the playoffs and World Series, have been on a downward trajectory over the last decade and the 2012 World Series between Detroit Tigers and San Francisco was the least-watched Series ever. How will he balance an improvement in the pace of the game with the increased use of replays?
And then there’s Bud’s bugaboo: performance-enhancing drugs. Baseball seemed to believe that era of excess was in its rear-view mirror, with the game’s luster restored. But the indictments of Tony Bosch and others in connection with the Biogenesis scandal is a reminder that, as ESPN’s Gordon Edes puts it, “PEDs remain a blight upon the landscape, one not simply removed by the elimination of a few small-time operators. There was another lesson there, too, that exercising dubious means the way MLB did in taking down Alex Rodriguez — under Manfred’s direction — can bring as much, or more, harm to an institution than good.”
No one may have more knowledge inside baseball on that topic than Manfred, who was frequently criticized for how he led the Biogenesis investigation. But drugs may not be Manfred’s biggest challenge. That could be convincing owners of the dangers of their complacency, particularly when it comes time to herd 30 owners used to having their own way when it’s time to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with players after the 2016 season.
And most of all, baseball cannot be smug about its success, and its fraying connection with the next generation of fans. It is one reason why a third of the owners during Thursday’s balloting threw their support behind Tom Werner, the longtime television executive, believing that Werner might bring fresh ideas to grow the game. National TV ratings are down, complaints regarding the game’s length are growing louder, the core audience is graying, and there has been an inability to raise the level of the game’s greatest stars to that enjoyed by their basketball and football counterparts.
That last part may be the biggest challenge of all for a man who, like the NFL’s Roger Goodell and the NBA’s Adam Silver, comes to the job with a wealth of institutional knowledge but now will be challenged to think more creatively. Bringing the game to a new audience with social and advanced media will be a big part of that as he considers long-term strategy. Short-term, labor issues will preoccupy him. For now, it’s enough to just not be “the previous guy,” as Goodell and Silver initially discovered when they replaced long-time commissioners. From Yahoo’s Jeff Passan:
Best of all is the clean slate he provides. He is not Selig, who oversaw the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and turned a blind eye to performance-enhancing drug use before rebranding himself as the steroid Sheriff Joe. Less famously, though perhaps more impactfully, Selig built baseball’s massive revenue growth on the back of publicly funded stadiums that fleece taxpayers and local television deals that drain the pockets of the average viewer.
And yet Selig helped grow baseball into a far healthier game than it’s ever been, with strong attendance, an impressive technology base and, best of all, labor peace. Give Selig this: He acknowledged his mistakes and tried to remedy them, and the fact that 2016 will mark the 22nd consecutive with baseball is a legacy of which he should be enormously proud.
Rob Manfred, first as a lawyer, then as a lieutenant, then as a consigliere, helped foster that, and it’s why his victory on Thursday was a victory for the sport. He’s got until Dec. 1, 2016, to whip the turncoats in line, to figure out how large- and small-market teams split revenue and make sure the fight is against the union and not one another. It won’t be easy, not with [Jerry] Reinsdorf and others who almost allowed their greed to interrupt a rightful coronation.