Originally Published: March 8, 2017 6:01 a.m.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has finally proposed an idea that every baseball fan can embrace: reducing commercial time during games.
Since he became commissioner in 2014 Manfred has been on a crusade he has dubbed “pace-of-play,” which has been interpreted as a reduction in game times. To that end, in the past two years MLB has enacted a number of rules, including forcing players to remain in the batting box during their at bats - subject to exceptions - requiring pitchers to finish their warmup throws so they are ready to pitch immediately at the end of commercial breaks and encouraging umpires to enforce the strike zone. This year, intentional walks will no longer require the pitcher to throw four pitches wide of the strike zone. On a signal from the manager, the batter will automatically be awarded first base.
Other initiatives have been or will be adopted in the Minor Leagues, such as limiting the time between pitches and placing a runner on second base to begin every extra inning. However, those changes have yet to be approved by the Players Association which must sign off on any rule changes at the Major League level.
As the most traditional of sports, any proposed change to the game is guaranteed to stir up at least one of baseball’s constituencies - fans, players, owners or the media. That makes the adoption of any new rules a laborious and controversial process, with critics branded as hide-bound, antiquated traditionalists and supporters accused of being infidels – or worse. In other words, Manfred can’t win regardless of what position he takes. At least, until now.
In a recent interview with Maury Brown of Forbes, Manfred made it clear that pace-of-play includes increasing action and eliminating “dead time” during games. On the surface, those goals appear to be inconsistent with reducing game times, a fact Manfred readily admits. However, he believes it’s more important to make every minute “action packed” in order to attract a younger audience, the goal of every sport in today’s environment. To that end, Manfred addressed an issue that was previously thought to be off-limits: shortening commercial breaks.
The suggestion is hardly new and Manfred isn’t the first member of baseball’s ruling class to utter the words publicly. Most recently, Tom Werner, one of the Red Sox’ owners and a member of MLB’s pace-of-play committee, stated he was in favor of the idea. Neither Werner nor Manfred suggested specifics or even whether there have been discussions with baseball’s media partners on the subject. Beyond baseball, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been vocal in supporting a reduction in commercial time during football games.
To paraphrase an unknown author, for every action there are consequences. If baseball reduces commercial time during games it is also likely to reduce broadcast revenues. That consequence is unpalatable to the lords of the game, unless the players would agree to lower salaries. Don’t hold your breath on the latter. What to do?
This is where traditionalists must be flexible. There are a number of opportunities to generate additional revenue during baseball broadcasts, some of which have been suggested in the past. One would be to increase on-field advertising which could be shared with broadcast partners. Former commissioner Bud Selig, a self-described traditionalist, could also be a visionary. Remember the Spider-Man movie? In 2004 after Selig gave the green light to place advertising for the movie on the bases, the outcry was so intense that MLB reversed course the next day.
But times have changed. MLB could revisit that option along with others – advertising on uniforms, using current technology to create additional revenue potential in-park, devising on-screen advertising opportunities, etc. Reducing advertising inventory could even justify a price increase.
One thing is certain: a reduction in commercial time during games is something that every segment of baseball’s constituency can embrace. Less conclusive at this point is how to mitigate the loss of revenue to satisfy everyone who would be affected.
Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a Professor in and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions contained in this column are the author’s. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.