It was a momentous changing of the guard this weekend in Major League Baseball, as Bud Selig’s reign as commissioner ended and Rob Manfred launched his with an open letter to fans. Shorter Rob: Yay, baseball!
On the business side, MLB has never been in better shape: revenues in 2014 approached $9 billion, virtually every team is on solid footing, and several initiatives, like MLB AM, are paying solid dividends. During his tenure, Bud Selig modernized the sport, attracted solid owners, and set forth a very sustainable business model. He was the right man at the right time: today’s Americans crave the experiential, and an MLB game today is a great experience, both on and off the field.
So Manfred has some awfully big shoes to fill. We can’t forget he was part of all of MLB’s accomplishments the past decade, so we can expect more of the same from the new commissioner. There are, however, some areas where Manfred can work to create his own legacy. And he recognizes one very important key to the sport’s future: expanding baseball’s fan base while creating a more diverse sport.
Here’s Manfred’s letter to fans. It is remarkably short on specifics — even for an open letter directed to fans — and at the end of the day it just doesn’t do more than lead a cheer or two for baseball. There are a few sections we’d like to highlight, however, especially these grafs:
My top priority is to bring more people into our game — at all levels and from all communities. Specifically, I plan to make the game more accessible to those in underserved areas, especially in the urban areas where fields and infrastructure are harder to find. Giving more kids the opportunity to play will inspire a new generation to fall in love with baseball just as we did when we were kids. Expanding Little League, RBI and other youth baseball programs will also help sustain a steady and wide talent pool from which our clubs can draw great players and create lifelong fans.
As Commissioner, I will draw closer connections between youth baseball and MLB. I want to inspire children’s interest in baseball and help parents and coaches foster that passion. In the coming years, MLB will work with college, high school, amateur and youth baseball programs to help grow our game and to ensure that the best players and talent have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. I call it “One Baseball” — a partnership between all professional and amateur groups involved in our game.
If there’s one thing we’d like to see from the Manfred years, it would be real dedication to expanding the baseball world past its current white base. (In this article, he sounds the same dedication.) As it stands, professional baseball is very focused on white males, both on the playing field and in the front offices. Greater diversity has been set as a goal both by MLB and MiLB leaders, and the sport could certainly benefit from a real commitment to diversity. There were a few Selig-era commitments to diversity, including a training summit and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, but lots more can be done.
The aforementioned R.B.I. program is a great start: we saw tangible results from it the past few years — and especially last year with the opening of Curtis Granderson Stadium and perhaps the most diverse American representation at the Little League World Series in decades. But R.B.I. is just a start and only begins to address the issue of expanding the baseball world. Let’s stress Manfred’s goal: to “ensure that the best players and talent have the opportunity to pursue their dreams.”
The way to do this isn’t just to promote efforts or highlight inner-city diamond renovations: it’s to actually sink some money into these youth programs. There’s no doubt that youth baseball draws some highly motivated and dedicated volunteers, but they can only take players so far. Today’s youth baseball requires a pretty hefty financial commitment for players and their families: travel teams and camps are not cheap, to say the least. Having a decent urban facility is one thing; giving these players the means to develop is quite another. And, as noted, that requires some real money and creative thinking.
So the real test of Manfred’s commitment to expand the sport will be relatively easy to measure in a year. Attracting new, younger fans is a worthwhile goal; expanding the base of the game to reflect a changing American is a much more worthwhile goal — and accomplishing the second may very well lead to success in reaching the first.