Next MLB commissioner must focus first outside U.S.
AUG 13, 2014 3:53a ET
For the first time in a generation, we’re about to witness the World Series of Baseball Power-Brokering.
As baseball’s quarterly owners meetings open here, the agenda has but one major item: Baseball will have a new commissioner-elect by Thursday, as long as one of the three finalists — Rob Manfred, Tim Brosnan, or Tom Werner — garners support from at least 23 of the 30 owners. Each candidate will present his vision for the sport’s future to the full ownership body during Wednesday’s session.
Bud Selig has presided over the sport since 1992, so many current owners will be voting on a commissioner for the first time. Manfred, the MLB chief operating officer, has been viewed as the favorite, in part because of his close ties to Selig and current role as the No. 2 executive in the sport.
It wouldn’t be appropriate to use this space as an endorsement. I’m not privy to the details of each candidate’s plan for the sport. But since I’ve been known to suggest how owners should spend their money during the winter months — there’s no salary cap in this sport, you know — I will offer the following (free) advice to the prospective voters:
The next commissioner of baseball should be the candidate with the clearest, boldest and most practical plan to grow the sport internationally.
When I asked Selig during a Tuesday news conference to specify the attributes he most wants to see in his successor, he listed “a sincere passion for the game,” the understanding that all decisions must be made “in the best interest of the sport,” and also patience.
But a few moments later, after a question about the sport’s international future, Selig said this:
“International is a great area . . . If we do our work well, in the next year or two, the growth of this sport will be legendary.”
Selig is right — about both the cause and immediacy of its timeline.
The owners shouldn’t be preoccupied with national television rights (those deals don’t expire until 2021) or the sport’s drug policy (renegotiated earlier this year). Rather, with Selig set to retire in January, his successor’s most important near-term tasks are (1) successfully negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2016 season and (2) growing the game globally. And yes, those two factors are closely related.
Industry revenues may surpass $9 billion this year, which would set another record. Clearly, teams are making money. So, the notion that owners should turn hostile in their dealings with the players’ union is absurd. If anything, MLB should make certain the players feel like business partners in the effort to expand the game internationally — which has the potential to create additional revenue streams for all involved.
Selig has said repeatedly that, if MLB does its job properly in the international realm, those of us associated with the game in the U.S. “won’t recognize” the sport a decade from now.
Well, what exactly does that mean?
… A true World Series, between the champions of MLB and Japan’s top league? Selig has mused about the possibility for years. The multinational television revenue potential — think the UEFA Champions League, only for baseball — is mind-boggling.
… MLB regular-season games in Europe? Selig said Tuesday that he’s “hopeful” such an announcement is coming, regarding the 2015 or 2016 season. Amsterdam and London are the top candidates, sources say.
… Expansion or relocation of franchises, to include teams based outside the U.S. and Canada? In time, positive trends in the Mexican economic and political systems could turn Mexico City — a larger metropolitan area than New York — into a viable option. Moreover, Mexico’s talent base is woefully underutilized by MLB, due in large part to an antiquated system in which local Mexican teams hold the rights of teenage prospects. MLB should put its political weight behind removing those barriers to free up a strong talent base.
… Meaningful development of China and Brazil as baseball markets? The sheer magnitude of their populations, combined with their enthusiastic participation in the World Baseball Classic, would suggest both countries should be high priorities.
MLB owners should demand specifics on those points from Manfred, Brosnan and Werner. After all, the NBA has proven in recent years that the world regards our sports with the same curiosity that has resulted in the explosion of soccer’s popularity across the U.S. MLB must act quickly to seize upon previously untapped markets, lest those countries near their sports saturation points before baseball takes an at-bat.
To accomplish this, the MLB Players Association needs to be fully invested — not bullied, as some owners would have it. The next commissioner must have the savvy to illustrate to the union how a LeBron-esque global marketing approach could enrich baseball stars, too.
That’s not to say Selig’s successor should ignore the sport’s domestic component. MLB has done important outreach among minority communities in recent years, and alumni of the Urban Youth Academies and Breakthrough Series have been selected in the MLB First-Year Player Draft. Those initiatives must continue. The aging demographic of the sport’s fan base needs to be addressed, too.
In the near term, though, baseball’s greatest growth potential lies outside our borders. Selig has offered a poetic vision for the sport’s future. Now it’s time to hear the prose.