The overall health and long-term viability of business stem from a willingness to evolve and adapt when conditions warrant. Major League Baseball is no stranger to the principle. In the last two decades, the sport instituted interleague play, modern ballparks, and an expanded wild card format.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred continues seeking ways to grow the game and outlined various measures on Thursday at the conclusion of the MLB Owners’ Meetings in New York City. Among the topics discussed were the Lerner Family assuming ownership of the Washington Nationals and possible tweaks to the league’s schedule for the 2019 season.
Ted Lerner purchased the Nationals from MLB in July 2006, two years after the club moved to Washington DC from Montreal. During his ownership tenure, the Nationals gradually developed into a perennial contender in the NL East behind the efforts of homegrown superstars Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper after selected them first overall in successive drafts. The 92-year-old Lerner hands over the franchise to his son, Mark, who assumes the role as principal owner.
“Probably the headline for us (of the Owners’ Meetings) was the controlling interest transfer of the Nationals from Ted Lerner to Mark Lerner. Baseball has always gone out of its way to facilitate family transfers,” Manfred said. “If you look at the controlling interest guidelines, it is essentially easier for families to shift (ownership) rather than not. This is part of the long baseball tradition.”
One of the changes in baseball’s new Basic Agreement were modifications to the schedule that include more off-days accommodate the players and the regular season commencing in March. As the league looks ahead to the 2019 season, the possibility exists for more tweaks, including scheduling select two-game series to begin on a Saturday rather than mid-week. MLB previously scheduled the Yankees and Red Sox for a two-game weekend series in London, taking place on June 29-30, 2019.
Scheduling a two-game series on the weekend could prove more economically viable by boosting attendance figures that were down roughly six percent as of Memorial Day compared to the same period last season. The other entity that stands to benefit from the changes is the national TV networks, such as FOX and ESPN since MLB will likely place matchups with the highest general interest in those windows. The current TV deal between FOX, ESPN, and TBS lasts through the 2021 season.
“The general thinking among the group is that we are working hard and doing a better job at producing a schedule that’s fan-friendly and maximizes the opportunity for clubs to market to the individual clubs,” Manfred said. “We have been reluctant because of scheduling traditions to do a two-game series on a weekend, even if it’s one of our prime rivalries. I think it’s something you will see in the future.”
With the widespread use of analytics in baseball front offices, the style of play on the field quickly grew to adapt to statistical data and changed the way teams used their rosters. The emphasis on swinging up launch angle led to players altering their swings and a dramatic rise in home run output since the middle of the 2015 season to counteract increased defensive shifts. Once used to prevent a slugger such as Ted Williams and Barry Bonds from favoring their pull-side at the plate, the defensive shift became as prevalent as the strikeout with teams shifting based on pitch and count.
Also reviewed were the improvements made to pace-of-play after the average time of game lasted 3:08 during the 2017 season. An attempt to appeal to the MLBPA to incorporate a pitch clock fell on deaf ears and other initiatives to improve pace-of-play, such as limiting the number of mound visits and shorter between-inning breaks led to a slightly quicker game and better overall flow.
“The competition committee is happy where we have gone on pace-of-game this year,” Manfred said. “We would like to continue the momentum on pace-of-game. But I also think that the committee is talking about how the game is being played on the field and certain trends that there’s been a lot of commentary about and whether we should address those trends a little more aggressively.”
The owners also spent time discussing the legalization of sports betting in the United States and its potential impact on baseball regarding the way fans watch the game and the added revenue for the league. Recently, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill legalizing gambling on sports in the Garden State and may pave the way for other states to follow suit.
“From our perspective, we see revenue opportunities, but most importantly, we see there’s an opportunity for fan engagement,” Manfred said. “We have two branches of activity going on, and we’re trying to make sure that the legal environment in which we operate is one that first and foremost that protects the integrity of the game, but equally important, protects our intellectual property.”
Major League owners meet three times a year to discuss various matters impacting the game and its long-term goals. Their next set of meetings will take place in November, one month before the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas.