© 2020 by Capital Frontiers

Meet the Major League Baseball Commissioner: Marie Antoinette

 

 

As baseball hemorrhages fans amid record profits for the sport, MLB’s senior level central management seem determined to quicken its death. In case after case of different issues facing the league, the management team, led by commissioner Rob Manfred, who has spent his entire career on the East Coast and exhibits a stereotypically New York hard-edged lack of grace amid challenges, has navigated the sport’s most existential threats with the kind of sensitivity to the sport’s national audience of a bully shaking kids down for lunch money. The resulting reputation is of baseball becoming a sports industry determined to do everything in its power to alienate its own fans, straining the generational and community loyalties that hold the sport together.

 

The list of issues Manfred and MLB owners have bungled is long and extensive, with the resulting reactions inexplicable to anyone who views baseball as anything more than an industrial machine. Rather than a sport designed to entertain the American public with all of the character and organic qualities that have enamored the public for generations, MLB leadership’s pivot in recent years has positioned the sport to prioritize short-term profits above all else, and to apply lean six sigma principles to maximizing the mechanical perfection of major league play, regardless of impacts on broader enjoyment of the game or on the broad middle class of America at the heart of baseball fandom.

 

The approach mistakes the sport – a children’s game designed to entertain the masses – for a vital mechanical production line. In Manfred’s MLB, baseball is about corporate profits, lean perfection, speed, efficiency, and all of the attributes of a 1950s Utopian vision of the efficient city of tomorrow. The revolt against such thinking in urban planning should be a lesson to Manfred, but for now it is the tenor of his policies.

 

This approach – in which Marie Antoinette sits on a throne at the top of the league, fiddling away at breakneck speed spitting out bad ideas designed to overhaul the sport – has left the fans in the lurch, their key concerns unaddressed, the things they love needlessly being needled at, their wallets unapologetically fleeced, and, now literally, their own desire to defend the right of their communities to have access to live baseball being verbally assaulted from the league’s highest office. Baseball could scarcely come up with a better strategy to drive away its own fans.

 

Some of the key issues that have been bungled by league management:

 

 

Baseball has fumbled away a generation of kids…

 

For a decade, baseball, amid rising ticket prices, failed to market its product to kids. Rather than an accessible, easy entertainment option for kids off school in the summer, baseball made itself opaque, encircling the game with prohibitive prices, exclusive seating areas, and media deals designed to limit access to baseball content across the internet. As social media rose, baseball did everything in its power to centralize its own media and prevent its players from being seen on the web, the very place where kids and teens were going to alleviate their boredom. Baseball, to kids, became a non-entity and baseball is now struggling to get them back though a wide array of misplaced strategies with no relevance on whether kids will love the game again.

 

 

And it seems determined to price out all of those who remain…

 

While Manfred tinkers with minutia ad nauseum (see below), he’s ignored the single most significant obstacle to growing baseball’s fandom. Eternally the top concern fans cite about why they don’t attend more games, why kids aren’t more interested in the game, and what kinds of issues fans would like to see improved as a means to grow the game’s popularity, baseball has done exactly nothing to address the nightly fleecing that occurs to fans at the ballparks. Prices for parking, tickets, concessions and souvenirs are higher than ever, having doubled in real value since 1990, fueled by player salaries that continue to soar into the stratosphere, now at numbers completely unrelatable to the average fan. No longer are favorite players the kinds of people with whom kids can identify (in 1986, the average salary of an MLB player was today’s equivalent of $85,000, a solid middle-class salary, while today it’s in the millions). The result of an unaffordable product is declining attendance, something with which MLB appears completely content. Amid all of the rule changes proposed by Manfred over the last few years designed to win back fans, addressing prohibitively high costs to attend games is never mentioned.

 

The resulting perception is that MLB cares more about profits than about propagating the long-term sustainability of the game by making it accessible to fans as an affordable entertainment option. The reality is probably not far away. While MLB may continue to enjoy the revenues from its current TV deals as a way to drive its current profits, it is ignoring existential long-term damage to its future when it so brazenly ignores fan concerns about prices. Manfred may be raising revenues, but he’s doing it at the expense of the sport’s future. The owners, who themselves would prefer the revenues, have so far expressed no concerns.

 

 

Manfred alienated the whole country by failing to punish cheaters…

 

Nothing drives people up the wall more than seeing bad people get away with being bad while the forces that could punish them fail to take action out of laziness. So appears the way the MLB handled the Astros’ sign-stealing cheating scandal. In a move inconsistent even with its own approach to its last big scandal – in which players have been ruthlessly blackballed for even being accused of taking injections that made their play better – MLB opted this time not to punish the most serious culprits of blatant baseball cheating, which is egregious in that the cheating was purely evil in intent and cruelly ruined careers. Nearly the entire corps of players who orchestrated the Astros’ scandal are still in the league, completely unpunished, and many of them are still smug and arrogant about it. Manfred’s excuse in his letter issued to the public as to why players were not punished amounted to laziness – essentially that it would be hard to figure out who did what as part of the scandal. For a league pulling in $10 billion a year that is quick to punish even minor other kinds of player transgressions, the response was a wholly inadequate slap in the face to fans offended by the damage the cheating has done to the game. As Bill Simmons noted, Manfred’s failure to punish the actual culprits is actually “indefensible”.

 

 

Obsessively tinkering with things that don’t matter…

 

Manfred has created the impression that he thinks the sport is in crisis, and that the way to fix it is to fundamentally change the game by needling with minor elements of the rules at breakneck speed. For the fans who do love the game, Manfred’s obsession with tinkering with the game’s traditions is a slap in the face and a misallocation of blame: Manfred appears to think the game itself is the problem, which has irked those that enjoy it as it is. Instead of making the game more affordable and accessible to young fans as a way to drive the sport’s growth, Manfred’s leadership team has chosen to inexplicably focus instead on making changes to the rules of the game in the hopes that such random tweaks will magically make up for the loss of audience caused by price gouging and media monopolization.

 

Their foremost and most inexplicable obsession has been “pace of play”, a topic fretted about my Manfred ad nauseum. His belief that a game that takes 2 hours and 58 minutes would attract radically more fans than a game taking 3 hours and 4 minutes is predicated on the wacky belief that the primary reason baseball is losing fan interest is that games are too long, a sentiment almost never bolstered by polling data. Due to what appears to be a galling misunderstanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the sport, each year of Manfred’s tenure the league has proposed dozens of poorly received rule changes that achieve little other than eliminating key strategic elements of the sport, and which annoy nearly everyone.

 

 

Turning a tradition-rich sport into a gimmick-riddled reality show…

 

For a game built around rich tradition, Manfred has created the impression through numerous of his rule changes that he must hate the game and has little respect for its history, traditions, or the innate fabric that has made it beloved to fans. For one, he appears obsessed with eliminating the elements of baseball that make it a complex strategy game: for instance, his much-hated proposal to bring the Designated Hitter to the National League rather than follow fan sentiment to eliminate it from the American, or his moves to eliminate intentional walks and pitching changes. In his eyes, all are for the sake of building mechanical efficiency to the pace of play and boosting offensive output, neither of which are high on fan priority lists. Manfred’s vision for the sport appears to be one of zero strategy and lots of home runs, hit in short order according to a pitch clock so as not to lose pace. He has never mentioned any affection for the unique leisurely, stress-reducing element of baseball that it is the one sport whose progression is not determined by an ever ticking time clock.

 

Manfred’s recent playoff proposal was among the most galling of all, as it literally proposed turning American’s most tradition-rich sport into a bona fide reality show for the sake of TV viewership, while shredding the importance of the sport’s 162-game regular season to itself sort out the best and worst teams. A TV producer extrordinaire, Manfred’s obsession with making baseball palatable to viewers of “The Bachelor” is a misguided failure to see the forest from the trees. And it has left fans frustrated that their commissioner doesn’t even appear to like the game.

 

 

And worst of all, ripping baseball from the hearts of communities…

 

While the league has failed to bat an eye amid multi-hundred-million-dollar player contracts that are in the stratosphere of un-relatability to the average fan struggling to afford a ticket, Manfred has proposed to rip baseball from the hearts of 42 communities so that the league can save an aggregate total of $22 million, according to the only estimate I have seen. An idea borne of the same management consulting gurus who crafted the Astros’ cheating scandal, the idea to eliminate 42 teams and communities from the minor leagues is a clueless and callous penny-pinching scheme designed to expedite baseball’s efficiency as a mechanical engine on behalf of the major league teams, with no recognition for the fact that the game is an entertainment enterprise whose long-term future depends on the sport being beloved in the hearts and minds of kids across America.

 

MLB’s idea to eliminate teams from the minor leagues is borne from the belief that MLB teams could operate themselves equally or more efficiently with fewer minor league players due to modern analytical tools that today can help them find major league talent from a smaller pool of prospects. While that may be true, it does little to justify eliminating minor league teams, which already are composed of mostly players with few prospects for major league success. Instead, the real rationale for the move is cost savings: MLB today pays approximately $100 million in non-signing bonus salaries to minor league support players across the 246 teams farmed out to the 30 major league teams. That amount is paltry compared to the big bucks major league teams are playing with, and represents a bargain to MLB that they can build a base of fans for their sport across a nationwide network of small cities for such a small price. For $100 million in support player salaries, baseball attracts over 40 million minor league fans to games each year. And yet rather than slicing, say, a single year off of Alex Bregman’s bloated MLB contract, MLB has instead brilliantly decided that penny pinching would be best achieved by crushing this minor league ecosystem and cruelly eliminating the ability for 42 small communities to access baseball. It's some way to grow the game.

 

Manfred’s proposal to eliminate the 42 teams was so egregious and heartless that it attracted the attention of the US Congress, which stepped in and issued a bipartisan statement repudiating the ridiculous proposal. It was an easy political win for politicians to back communities against the same kind of corporate penny pinching that has been the subject of American corporate villain tales for generations. Manfred as Scrooge is a fair comparison, or as the boss in National Lampoon’s “Christmas Vacation” who tried to cut costs by eliminating Christmas bonuses and was ultimately given his comeuppance in the most satisfying of Christmas triumphs on behalf of the Christmas spirit of what’s good and what’s right. It seems doubtful Manfred has seen it.

 

Unlike the Grinch, instead of his heart growing three sizes when called out for his heartlessness, Manfred responded to the Congressional retort in standard playground bully form, defending the indefensible proposal in the most forceful of terms and blasting both Congress and Minor League Baseball for daring to defend small towns. In his reply, Manfred urged readers to go harass Minor League baseball so that they’d cave to his demands. It was vintage Manfred, blind to the PR disaster the obviously bad move represented, singularly focused on saving costs and building efficiencies while alienating fans in the most heartless way possible.

 

 

We need to think seriously about Baseball’s future leadership…

 

What is baseball to its current leadership but a machine to be squeezed for cash, and what are fans other than suckers to be bludgeoned and bullied until they, too, become so sick of the leadership that they give up on the game they love. Then, finally, Manfred’s approach, which is predicated on the false belief that baseball is a flawed game destined for the ash heap of history unless a hero steps in and saves it, might finally become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Unfortunately, in that instance even Manfred’s gimmicky “pitch clock” might not be enough to save it.

 

For years Manfred has discordantly trumpeted both a doomsday belief that baseball is failing at the ticket booth while gloating with pride about its record TV revenues. He’s bungled the opportunity to make game-saving improvements at nearly every turn, instead choosing short-term and gimmicky moves that are driving the fans away. As a result, he has long lost the trust of the sport’s fans. Just google “Rob Manfred” and see the litany of articles calling for his ouster. Count this one into the mix: Manfred’s recent resume of proposals is a collection of laughably bad ideas, and we run the risk, if he’s in office much longer, that Manfred will pull the game down with him.  

 

 

 

 

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February 16, 2020

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