clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Commissioner Rob Manfred addresses future challenges for Major League Baseball

New, 1 comment

Rob Manfred spoke at Harvard Law School on Tuesday and discussed baseball's international appeal, youth outreach, diversity initiatives, and more.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Commissioner Rob Manfred was at Harvard Law School on Tuesday for a brief but informative talk, one that covered new ground on several key issues. The conversation began with a half hour of questions from Professor Michael Klarman and was followed by 20 minutes of questions from students in the audience. As a result, it is somewhat scattered, with certain topics remaining untouched. What I've tried to do is organize it into a coherent form that covers the main topics.

Manfred was a graduate of Harvard Law in the class of 1983, after which he worked at a large law firm called Morgan, Lewis, & Bockius, where he specialized in labor and employment law. It was that practice that led him to baseball, as the firm was hired by the league around the time of the 1990 lockout. Manfred would continue to work with MLB as outside counsel through the 90s, a period which included several highly contentious labor struggles, including the 1994 strike. Once Bud Selig was made permanent commissioner in 1998, Manfred joined the league officially and spearheaded its relationship with the players and the union.

He described that position as having traditionally been a "career-ender", and while it was surely the result of various factors, it is notable that his tenure coincided with the longest stretch of labor peace in baseball since before the advent of free agency, and his career quite obviously did not end there. It's easy to see the importance of that experience in his current role. He spoke fondly of the way that working in labor provided "broad access to the game", including both players and owners, and his success as the league's labor representative is likely responsible for the smooth transition he's had to the role of commissioner. Whether he can replicate that success during next offseason's collective bargaining negotiations remains to be seen, but it's impossible to think the memory of his former role won't have an impact.

When asked about the future of baseball, the focus of Manfred's response was the need to adapt to changes in the way people live their lives, but not necessarily by altering the sport itself. He cautioned against "rushing through changes to a game where history and tradition are so important" and spoke instead of adjustments to the way the game is delivered and marketed. He identified one advantage of such an approach as the way it allows differentiation between target markets. He pointed to last week's announcement of a deal between MLB and China's Le Sports to stream over 100 games in China, in Mandarin, as well as create a centralized portal and market merchandise designed specifically for China as an example of that differentiation. A different game can't be played for Chinese fans, American fans, and Latin American fans, but the game can be delivered in different ways to those different groups.

Similarly, the commissioner discussed the imperative felt by the league to attract young fans, primarily by providing alternate methods of engaging with baseball. He indicated the possibility that "television is not the predominant way people engage with baseball in the long haul" as one reason the league has sunk so much money and effort into MLB Advanced Media and is continuing to expand in other areas. He touted their agreement with Fox to allow in-market streaming of games on their network as a major advancement and hinted than an agreement with Boston's network, NESN, was forthcoming, which would bring the total teams available for in-market streaming to 16.

But Manfred also pushed back against the idea that changing the game, to be quicker or have more offense, for example, was simple or easy. He described the recent decline in offense as partly a function of the lowered strike zone, itself an unanticipated consequence of MLB's (successful) attempt to make the zone more regular via PITCHf/x. The bump in offense observed over the second half of 2015 is evidence that this could be a cyclical rather than linear trend, according to the Commissioner, and is more generally a reason to exercise caution and restraint when meddling with the complex and interconnected system of baseball's rules.

Manfred was also asked about the moral problems MLB is confronting and made a compelling case that acting in a principled way is not only the right thing to do but the strategy that best secures baseball's long-term success. In responding to a question about the Jose Reyes and Aroldis Chapman domestic violence investigations, he noted that MLB very intentionally reserved the right to proceed in the absence of criminal charges for two intertwined reasons. First, he identified the moral imperative felt by the league to "make a statement about the topic" that would set an appropriate precedent. Under his tenure, MLB has developed a robust investigate arm, and Manfred said he planned to use the information they gather, which does not perfectly overlap with the information a prosecutor can use in a legal proceeding, to develop a fair response that appropriately reflects the moral culpability of the individuals being investigated.

Second, he said the league was responding to the public's expectation that it, and the Players' Association, would hold players to a higher standard than law enforcement. While he questioned that position mildly, he said its existence was enough to push MLB to act, as the league should strive to be what the fans want as much as possible. While the specific punishments meted out to Chapman and Reyes are still unknown, and the Commissioner is unlikely to disclose the entirety of the facts he relies on in setting those punishments, this should be hugely encouraging to anyone who feels athletes should be held more responsible regarding domestic violence than they have been in the past. Your voice has been heard, is viewed as part of the majority by Manfred, and is being responded to.

He had a similar response when asked about diversity in MLB along gender and racial/ethnic lines, citing both its importance in a vacuum and the financial imperative felt by the league to appeal to diverse consumers. "Women drive entertainment decisions, especially for families," said Manfred, which makes opportunities to involve women in the game crucial. He cited the A's guest instructor Justine Siegal, the first female coach in MLB, and the league's increased efforts to reach out to youth and amateur softball as positive steps to build on. He also mentioned that seeing Mo'ne Davis's dominant performance in the 2014 Little League World Series made him think there would eventually be a female major leaguer, though he acknowledged it likely wouldn't be in the near future.

Justine Siegal throws batting practice to the Cleveland baseball team during Spring Training in 2011. Photo credit: Norm Hall, Getty Images.

Regarding racial and ethnic diversity, baseball's appeal "begins with the product on the field," according to Manfred. He said MLB was similarly diverse to other leagues in its number of African-American and Latino players but did acknowledge the perception that baseball was falling behind and pointed to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiative as one example of MLB's desire to foster a diverse fanbase and increase opportunity for minority athletes in the long term. The commissioner did not address the dearth of coaches and general managers of color, however, despite the "Selig rule" ostensibly requiring teams to interview minority candidates for all openings.

Baseball does underperform among Latin Americans in America, and Manfred said the main reason for that is the disconnect between MLB's players, who are primarily from the Caribbean, and those potential fans, who are mostly of Mexican origin. He said improving the league's ability to extract players from the Mexican Baseball League was a priority of his, as those teams "have tended to hoard their players," which limits baseball's domestic appeal to those consumers.

Finally, there were a couple of other issues Manfred hit on quickly. When asked about the possibility of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens being inducted to the Hall of Fame, he railed against "writers... who make a judgment [of PED use] based on someone's appearance." He did, however, cite the character provisions of the Hall of Fame rules, and somewhat notably said nothing about Bonds, Clemens, or any other confirmed user of performance-enhancing drugs.

Manfred described competitive balance as "crucial" and said that baseball's decentralized structure as compared to other major sports leagues means it cannot lean as heavily on revenue sharing, forcing the league to find other avenues to parity. In his opinion, the biggest driver of baseball's current parity is the amateur talent system, including the draft and international signings, and he said the system of varied bonus pools among teams "has produced a really good result for us." Despite the Brady Aiken disaster of the 2014 draft, it would seem the current system is not one MLB is looking to change.

All in all, it was a candid and wide-ranging assessment of where MLB has moved in recent years and where it may go in the near future. Manfred's first year has just come to a close, and with it any honeymoon period he may have had. In the near future, negotiations for the CBA loom, and in the long term, baseball must address the traditional threats of homogeneity and an aging fanbase, but on Tuesday, Manfred made the league sound entirely prepared to meet those challenges.

. . .

Henry Druschel is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.