New Baseball Commissioner's Task: Managing Decline

Rob Manfred will succeed Bud Selig as Major League Baseball’s 10th commissioner after being selected over Boston Red Sox chairman Tom Werner Photograph by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

After their version of a papal conclave in the Baltimore Hyatt Regency yesterday, Major League Baseball owners chose Rob Manfred to succeed Bud Selig as league commissioner. Selig, who is set to retire at the end of the year, got his man with Manfred, winning a proxy war with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf that included bickering over recommendation letters. Now comes the hard part for Manfred: leading baseball out of the American mainstream.

Manfred’s checklist probably includes controlling player costs, catching and punishing drug cheats, securing fat TV contracts, and fixing the game’s old person problem. His larger task, though, is to manage baseball’s displacement from the center of American culture. To do it, he’ll have to ignore the nostalgia and handwringing and treat baseball’s slide to the margins as an opportunity rather than a crisis.

World Series TV ratings tell the basic story. The peak (since Nielsen began tracking in 1968) came in the late 70′s and early 80′s, when nearly a third of all households with televisions tuned in to baseball’s final. Now the league would be happy to get 10 percent. The fall classic falls short of the average regular season NFL game for TV viewership. Set next to the NFL—or its own past—baseball looks decrepit, a victim of technological and cultural changes that have made the very notion of a national pastime obsolete.

The temptation for the next commissioner will be to try to recapture past glory or to compete with the NFL, an approach that, besides being doomed to fail, obscures the league’s underlying strengths. Earlier this month, Maury Brown at Forbes published data showing that baseball games dominate primetime viewing in many local markets during the summer. Game telecasts were the top-rated programming in 12 cities and among the top five in 20.

Most folks around the country can’t name a player on the Kansas City Royals, but about 56,000 viewers in the region are absorbed in the team’s pennant race every night. That’s not terribly impressive on its own, but, repeated 29 times in different cities, it’s the foundation for a healthy entertainment business. This is how the league should think of itself now: a collection of 30 companies with strong regional brands.

Seen in this light, the splintering of American cultural consumption plays to baseball’s favor. It can’t deliver the mass audiences that the NFL can, but it has much more inventory: 2,430 total games per regular season, compared to football’s 256.  Each of those 2,430 is an event that matters to hundreds of thousands of people. And there are millions more—fantasy baseball players and other hardcore fans—who want at least a little piece of all of them, a box score or a highlight. As commissioner, Manfred should focus on serving these two overlapping sets of fans.

The league, for the most part, seems to understand the needs of the everywhere-all-the-time crowd. MLB Advanced Media, known as BAM, is a pioneer in live-streaming sports online. Its mobile apps and subscription service for out-of-market games set the industry standard. BAM recently partnered with Sports Illustrated and a handful of sports leagues to create 120 Sports, a digital-only sports network that provides news and highlights in two-minute chunks.

The league could do better, however, for hometown fans. A good start would be making the online panoply of games available in more local markets, even if it means cutting into cable rights revenue. The league’s primary business should be cultivating Royals fans, and Pittsburgh Pirates fans, and Colorado Rockies fans, and so on, as opposed to generic baseball fans. That should start with young people and take priority over maximizing current revenue.

MTV programming and Hello Kitty merchandise are not enough to keep from losing a generation. Instead of chasing the largest possible national primetime audience for the playoffs, put more games at hours when children are awake. Instead of squeezing every dollar out of ticket sales, find more ways to make games affordable for families. Steal a page from the minor leagues and fill the spaces between innings with dizzy bat games and inflatable pony races. The best thing Rob Manfred can do for baseball is to ignore the prevailing desire for brands to be big, global, and luxury. Baseball’s future is in small, local, and cheap.

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