Imagine the inauguration of a new president, with the United States enjoying a wildly prosperous economy, record-low unemployment and no foreign conflicts — circumstances attributed to an outgoing leader almost universally described as the best ever to do the job.
In the context of our national pastime, so begins Rob Manfred’s tenure this weekend as the 10th Major League Baseball commissioner.
The job ahead of Manfred is profoundly difficult — not because the sport is doing so poorly but rather because it is doing so well.
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Industry revenues reached a record $9 billion in 2014, with in-stadium attendance, new media and local television ratings among the noteworthy strengths. Outgoing commissioner Bud Selig has ensured 22 years of labor peace, the longest such period since the advent of collective bargaining.
St. Louis Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt, who headed the search process that culminated in Manfred’s appointment, has said Selig “will go down as the greatest commissioner in baseball history.”
No pressure, right?
Manfred is eminently qualified for the job he is about to assume, and he must call upon every ounce of his considerable intellectual bandwidth and political skill to perform it well. The task of maintaining baseball’s relevance — nationally and internationally — could prove even more challenging than Selig’s resuscitation of the sport following the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.
Here are some of the key issues Manfred will encounter in his first weeks, months, and years in office:
Preserving the peace: MLB remains on relatively good terms with the MLB Players Association, at least by the standards of labor relations. It’s imperative that Manfred maintain that trend with his counterpart, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark. The effort should be helped by the fact that this winter’s free-agent cycle has been the least contentious of the current collective bargaining agreement, which expires in 2016; James Shields is the lone remaining free agent who rejected a qualifying offer.
Does baseball have a perfect financial system? No. But the recent mega-deals signed by Giancarlo Stanton and Max Scherzer — with teams outside of New York, Boston, and Los Angeles — are evidence of the game’s overall health.
In many ways, the consistency of baseball’s presence is among its greatest strengths: The reliability of live programming at 7 p.m., most every day of the week, is one reason Major League Baseball remains such a robust television property. A work stoppage would spoil that.
Improving the on-field product: Selig deserves credit for reversing his longstanding opposition to instant replay near the end of his tenure. Now it will be up to Manfred to refine the system; more specifically, MLB must shorten the amount of time involved in each review, including the unnecessary on-field delay while managers mull over whether to challenge a particular play.
Selig has spoken frequently about the need to improve baseball’s pace of play; some initiatives will be phased in soon, subject to negotiation with the MLBPA. In that sense, the pace-of-play rule changes will marry Manfred’s stated desire to enhance Selig’s legacy with the need to continue a productive relationship with the players’ union.
Marketing superstars: Kevin Durant and Andrew McCutchen are similar in many ways. Both are American-born league MVPs of American pro sports leagues. Both have shown charisma, in and out of uniform. Both have received notoriety for appearing in the postseason. Both have shown a willingness to engage with fans on social media.
But there’s one major difference: Durant has more than 9 million Twitter followers. McCutchen has roughly 300,000. That’s a sobering disparity for MLB’s marketing effort, which has improved in recent years but obviously hasn’t caught up with the NBA’s global, tech-savvy brand.
A number of theories exist as to why basketball and football stars have a greater national following than baseball stars. One could argue that baseball is doing just fine — remember that $9 billion revenue figure? — in its current state, with teams and players followed on a local and regional basis.
Yet Durant’s 8.7-million follower lead on McCutchen tells us plenty about the interests of younger sports consumers. And if fans pass along their sports passions to successive generations, the gap will widen as time goes on. I recently suggested MLB should allow the home team to take one on-field selfie during each game. Extreme? Sure. But baseball will need to offend some traditionalists in order to remain relevant to Millennials while Manfred is in office.
Engaging young athletes, especially African-Americans: MLB has shown genuine concern about the declining percentage of African-American players on big-league rosters. The league has taken action in the form of three programs — Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), MLB Urban Youth Academies and the Breakthrough Series — that combined to produce 30 MLB draft picks last June. So, there’s been tangible progress. Selig also founded an On-Field Diversity Task Force, which Manfred will perpetuate and possibly expand.
Next, Manfred’s administration must find a way to articulate what should be a compelling message to sports-minded American families. Amid the concussion crisis in football, baseball has a lower risk of serious injury, no salary cap, and larger long-term contracts. Giancarlo Stanton, a onetime high school football player, just signed a $325 million deal —and every penny is guaranteed. Baseball is the sport you should WANT your child to play.
The NCAA could give baseball a huge assist by expanding the sport’s Division I scholarship limit from 11.7 per team. Many dual-sport athletes choose football or basketball late in high school — if not earlier — because those sports offer the better chance at a full college scholarship.
Evaluating the draft and international signings: Though soft caps under the current CBA have been effective in controlling costs on drafted picks, the loophole for veteran Cuban players has resulted in an explosion of spending for the likes of Rusney Castillo, Jose Abreu, Yasmany Tomas, and Yasiel Puig. In that sense, it’s difficult to know whether money is being saved as much as reallocated.
However one conceptualizes the market, it’s operating inefficiently. This is likely to be a point of contention in the next round of collective bargaining. Manfred was at the forefront of MLB’s previous effort to push for an international draft, which would be incredibly complex due to the only recently regulated market for Dominican players, among other reasons.
The worldwide draft is likely to be discussed again as the current CBA expires. One way or the other, Manfred should ensure a fairer marketplace for entering talent — regardless of country of origin.
New ballparks for the Rays and A’s: Finally, let’s see if Manfred can work the two miracles that eluded Selig. With some luck, those franchises will have new stadiums by the time Manfred’s successor is named.