Rob Manfred is four months into what he considers the best job in the world.
This is what we call the honeymoon phase, when everything is fresh and nice and positive. Part of being commissioner of baseball is promoting the sport, so we’ll pardon him for talking about his new bride’s good looks and ignoring her poor table manners.
“I remember the night I was driving home from Baltimore after the election and I couldn’t help but think I kind of hit the daily double,” Manfred says. “I got elected commissioner of baseball, in my little world the best job you could possibly have, and then I got thinking about the game. And I thought not only did I get elected, but I inherited a game that’s really in great shape.”
That is true in many ways. Attendance figures are near historic levels, franchise values have never been higher, and revenues continue to grow. Those are all good signs, obviously, but a look beneath the surface shows the equivalent of a wood rot problem that demands attention.
Specifically, baseball is losing the war for young fans. Little League participation is down 20 percent compared to its peak, and dropping faster than the national decline of participation in organized youth sports.
The average age of last year’s World Series viewer was 54. Five years ago, the average age was 49. The implications here are obvious, and bad for business.
People in the offices at MLB are justifiably proud of what they’ve done with technology, particularly with Major League Baseball Advanced Media. Nearly six million people open the AtBat app each day, and the average age of that user is 30. MLB is also excited about Statcast, which makes real-time technology accessible on broadcasts and by extension mobile devices.
But Manfred and the people who work for him know they have to do more. They need to formulate ways for the game to be cool again, for kids to not only want to play, but watch.
Talk to baseball operations folks long enough, and the conversation will inevitably turn to what many see as a thinning talent pool of young American baseball prospects. Kids are perhaps more skilled than a generation ago thanks to heavier youth schedules, but most longtime scouts think the athleticism is fading.
America’s best athletes are choosing other sports, a problem that shows itself not just in the quality of play but in the demographics of who is watching.
One of the strongest indicators of whether a child will grow up to be a fan in adulthood is how long that child plays the game. So promoting youth participation works on multiple levels. Get more kids playing, and you’ll eventually have better athletes make it to pro ball and more adults watching.
“I think one of the most important things that we have to accomplish is to make sure that the game gets passed down to the next generation the same way it was passed down to my generation,” Manfred says. “There are inherently appealing aspects to our game that put us in a position to be competitive for the younger fan.”
This is not a new problem for baseball, but many people around the sport believe Manfred is better positioned to fight it. Bud Selig did a lot of good for the game — more than he’s often given credit for — including the birth and enhancement of MLBAM.
But Manfred is a more natural fit for this specific and critical part of the game. He sometimes refers to himself as “the original plugged-in guy,” and is using more aggressive language in describing what his office can and should do to promote the sport to a younger audience.
Part of that could — needs, really — to be with a reexamination of the sport’s layered, outdated and counterproductive blackout rules, especially regarding MLB.tv.
“After Pete Rose, I probably get more questions about blackouts than anything else,” Manfred says. “I do think it’s important we make every effort to make sure we use technology, and maybe even changes to our rules, to make sure that people have access to the games via broadcasts. I do think it’s an issue that we need to deal with.”
That’s a good sign, if Manfred is serious about changing the rules to prevent or limit blackouts, particularly for fans who’ve already paid for the subscription video service.
Baseball is enjoying unprecedented labor peace — which Manfred has had a significant role with — and a much-improved relationship with the players’ union.
For the best future of the game, Manfred will need to lean on that relationship to encourage players to be more accessible in the community and active in social media. Baseball needs to be where people are, particularly young people. Building the sport’s future and promoting the game’s stars needs to be a collective effort.
Manfred is right that he’s taking over at a relatively good time for the sport. What he does in the early part of his commissionership will largely determine whether the next guy can say the same thing.