By Maury Brown — Today marks the 366th day that Rob Manfred has been the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. After taking over for Bud Selig, many questioned whether Manfred would simply be “Bud Lite,” a somewhat understandable feeling in 2015 when he was more or less handpicked by Selig.
Time has moved on, and while Manfred will be linked to Selig in many ways early on, as it is with all those that lead in business, eventually they begin to show trademarks of their own.
With Manfred now officially having one full year under his belt, it seemed like a good time to grade him on his efforts. First off, Manfred has yet to see any head winds. No potential major crisis that has surfaced in the news. Nothing that has yet worked through any appeals process by the union for the players. As a first year goes, Manfred has gone unscathed.
Still, there are aspects of his early years leading Major League Baseball that are worth looking at as they likely offer clues as to how he will approach matters at the end of his tenure, whenever that will be. Some bode well for the owners. Some bode well for fans. Some bode well for the bottom line. Here’s Manfred’s grades on several issues as he officially enters Year Two of his commissionership.
Relationship With The Owners
Those that followed his processor will tell you, Bud Selig was a master consensus builder. He was often described as having Reagan-esq qualities that showed most brightly when he was able to take 30 squabbling and detracted owners and align them into a formidable force after years of being beat up by Marvin Miller, Donald Fehr, and the union for the players. But Selig worked well one-on-one and then went about pulling the individual pieces together.
Manfred on the other hand is building consensus by taking high and low-revenue making owners and having them directly part of the process. Where Selig worked well with small groups, Manfred works well with the whole.
Relationship With The Media
Selig tended to work closely with those he knew best in the media. There were writers—whether it was Hal Bodley at USA Today, or in Milwaukee with the late Don Walker—Selig tightly controlled the message and who was sending it. Manfred on the other hand has been incredibly transparent with the media early on.
He seems to be interviewed often around aspects of the business, including two lengthy interviews with me here at Forbes (see An Interview With MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred On Pace Of Play, The Media Landscape, And Much More, as well as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred Touts Mexico As A Possible Expansion Location). That has worked well for him, although he’s addressed two issues (his initial thoughts on shifts; the possibility of the Designated Hitter in the National League), that has caused lively discussion.
As Manfred said in an interview published yesterday with Jerry Crasnick of ESPN, “It’s the damnedest thing. I made the same mistake on Day 1 and my first anniversary,” a reference to defensive shifts. “I made the same mistake this time when I went back and forth on the pros and cons of the DH issue rather than saying what I’ve said all along — that I think we’re status quo on the DH, because it is the single most important feature that defines the differences between the two leagues. I let myself get into the back and forth and the pros and cons, and that’s always a mistake with the press.”
The Handling Of Pete Rose
Unlike Selig, who let all-time hits leader Pete Rose whither on the vine for years in purgatory, not addressing the issue of whether to reinstatement after he was banned from baseball for gambling, Manfred wasted little time getting right to the matter. Rose applied for reinstatement, and waited less than a year for Manfred to look into the matter.
By know most know that Manfred did not reinstate Rose, something that many (including this author) agreed with. Manfred had to weigh whether to reinstate Rose to allow him to enter the Hall of Fame, or whether in doing so it would set precedent for a future event with the league. Manfred denied the reinstatement, but as those that follow baseball closely know, it is only due to a rule change with the Hall of Fame voting in the late 1990s that has prevented Rose from being on the ballot. The Hall can change the criteria to allow Rose to gain possible inclusion into the Hall.
Still, Manfred has said that the Rose decision was by far the hardest thing he’s had to undertake since taking over as commissioner. Given the balance act and forward thinking, along with the fact the Rose has not truly been contrite, Manfred ultimately made the right moves at the right time sending a message that he’d not table critical issues and give them the thought they deserve.
Views On Daily Fantasy Sports
If there’s been one aspect that Manfred seems to have gotten too far in front of, it’s the league’s relationship with daily fantasy sports. MLB is an equity partner with DraftKings, but when I interviewed him shortly after taking the commissioner’s chair, he described it as a sponsorship deal in place of revenue returns. That was before all the legal challenges the DFS industry has fallen under.
Nearly a year later, he doubled down on DFS saying to ESPN, “I continue to be comfortable with our relationship with DraftKings, and I think you will see the major players in the fantasy space respond in a positive way to make fantasy games even better.”
This position puts Manfred in a precarious spot. If he denied Rose his reinstatement over gambling, and then one or more of the legal challenges in the many states going after DraftKings and FanDuel finds that DFS is, indeed, gambling, Manfred then has to defend a relationship that it has long sought to get away from (remember the 1919 Black Sox scandal?). Manfred would have been better off to simply say that he was monitoring matters closely.
After one fan was injured severely at Fenway Park with a broken bat, and then several injuries with foul balls, Manfred and the owners quickly worked with HOK Sports to research and information that will culminate in increased netting protection up the baselines for the 2016 at every ballpark in the league.
“We’ve done a ton of research on the topic,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told me in an interview prior to announcing the netting for 2016. “Everything from designs of ballparks to data on exactly where bats and balls go to materials that are available for netting. This new netting is far different from designs in the past. This new netting protects but increases the visibility for the fans.”
Some will wonder whether it was the specter of lawsuits that forced Manfred to make the netting recommendation. That may be. Still, Manfred and the owners have quickly addressed the matter that saw more than a few purists upset about how the new netting shouldn’t be needed and rather fans needed to pay better attention to what was happening on the field. Ultimately, Manfred sees that an alteration now is better than someone potentially getting killed.
The Issue Of TV And Streaming Blackouts
In a perfect word, every Major League Baseball game—in or out of market, streamed or on television—would never be blacked out. After all, what business constrains getting a wanted product into consumers’ hands? Still, MLB has been mired in the blackout issue since MLB Extra Innings and MLB.TV Premium were launched.
Whether it was the class action lawsuit by fans regarding baseball antitrust exemption, or realizing they could cash in, some incredible movement has come about early in Manfred’s tenure around blackouts. As a settlement with the class action lawsuit, the ability for out-of-market fans to purchase single-teams rather than the entire league package will be made available in 2016. There was also the announcement of a three-year deal with 15 FOX controlled regional sports networks for in-market streaming. And Manfred is working with MLB President, Business & Media Bob Bowman to get more than half the league available by Opening Day. “If we’re unable to get the rest of the groups done before the start of the 2016 season, that will be a disappointment to me,” Manfred said to ESPN. “I think we’ll get it done, but it’s been a real grind.”
Still, it’s not perfect. To take advantage of these new offerings fans will need to authenticate that they are a cable or satellite TV subscriber. That means cord-cutters will continue to be in a lurch.
It’s a horrible situation that Manfred inherited that’s too critical for the owners (read: involves billions of dollars in media rights) to just drop. You have to give Manfred credit for taking it all on, but given how bad it’s all been, and how it’s still not the best, I’m unable to give him a perfect grade.
Domestic Violence Policy
The jury is still out on this one, but give Manfred and the league credit for seeing what was going on with Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and the NFL around matters of domestic abuse and said, “Let’s address this ASAP.” The league and the MLB Players Association jointly agreed on a domestic violence policy in August of last year, and since then there have been some cases that have certainly gotten looks under it. Aroldis Chapman, Yasiel Puig, and Jose Reyes have been involved in domestic abuse situations that MLB is investigating.
Credit Manfred, the league, and the MLBPA thus far in these early cases. The quiet regarding them as the investigation goes on shows that the system is in the midst of being worked through. Most importantly, unlike NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, Manfred hasn’t been uneven and careless in how the cases have been handled.
Setting The Stage For MLB’s First Openly Gay Player
While it is unknown what player reaction will be privately when MLB has its first opening gay player, the league has very early on made it clear that it embraces diversity and will not be tolerating homophobia. That would normally be where it stops but MLB has gone much further. In 2014, then Commissioner Selig announced that former player Billy Bean would become MLB’s first Ambassador of Inclusion. Bean came out as gay after he retired from the game. Since then, Manfred promoted Bean to Vice President, Social Responsibility & Inclusion and made former Major League player Curtis Pride as its newest Ambassador for Inclusion. In Bean’s new role he will be responsible for many of the League’s social responsibility initiatives, including oversight of MLB’s Workplace Code of Conduct and anti-bullying programming, while continuing to facilitate inclusion strategies with a focus on the LGBT community.
Manfred gets points for taking Selig’s direction and expanding upon it.
The Continued Struggles For New A’s And Rays Ballparks
Not everything that Manfred inherited will be settled early on. And some things will certainly not be easy. Selig was roundly trounced for setting on the fence regarding the A’s and Rays efforts to land new ballparks. There has been movement lately on the matter, albeit the A’s are left to wait out whether the Raiders move to LA or possibly San Diego or San Antonio. For the Rays, St. Petersburg has outlined a way for the club to move regionally for the first time ever. None of these openings spell clear solutions for the thorny problem of new ballparks or potential relocation for the two clubs. If nothing of significance happens within the next year, expect Manfred to get continued pressure from the media on the matter.
GRADE: TOO SOON TO GIVE ONE
How Does Manfred Grade In His First Year?
Given the relatively smooth sailing that Manfred has faced, and the fact that he didn’t create problems he didn’t need, overall he gets an B+/A- rating from me. But, Manfred’s true measure will come with the challenges, such as the next collective bargaining agreement, the battles over revenue-sharing, and how to respond to the controversies that all leagues eventually bump into. This coming year will be critical for the next CBA. But, as the former head of labor for the league, he’s been at the table many times prior and worked respectfully with the union for the players.
And overall, he’ll have to continue his efforts to grow the game with youth. He’s made great strides early on in that regard, but the fruits (if there are any) will not be seen for more than a few more years.
In other words, Year One could be very different from the years ahead. Still, Rob Manfred is doing far more good than bad, and is already distancing himself from those that might see him still as “Bud Lite.” That’s a positive for fans of the game of baseball.
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