MLB Commissioner on Foreign Expansion to Cuba and Mexico, Instant Replay and Drone Cameras

Rob Manfred - H  2015
Photo By Dustin Cohen

The new head of baseball speaks candidly about attracting young fans with the Play Ball initiative, whether fantasy sports hurts the game and how to better hype the draft.

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Rob Manfred is only the 10th commissioner of Major League Baseball, taking over in January from the long-serving Bud Selig. But Manfred, 57, is the only commissioner to have played Little League. And despite his admission that he was "one of the worst Little League players," the father of four grown kids has made reaching young people a top priority. The league's Play Ball initiative offers resources and clinics so children can get familiar with baseball, go to a park ("The younger you go to the game, the greater the likelihood that you're going to be an avid fan") and avail themselves of the technology on offer from MLB Advanced Media, including the At Bat app. "Seven million people a day open that app, and they are predominately under 35," he says. Manfred, who grew up in Rome, N.Y., as a Yankees fan and went to Harvard Law School, began working with MLB in 1987 as a lawyer doing collective bargaining. He served as outside counsel for the owners during the 1994-1995 players strike, then joined MLB in 1998, negotiating the league's first drug testing agreement in 2002. Now he presides over a 30-team league that sold 74.8 million tickets this season (up slightly from last year) and generated more than $12 billion in television license fees. During the postseason, which has seen a spike in ratings on Fox, FS1 and TBS thanks to major-market teams in the New York Mets, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers, Manfred is traveling constantly. With the World Series kicking off Oct. 27 on Fox, THR caught up with him in New York to talk MLB's plans for Cuba and Mexico, international expansion and why it took baseball so long to adopt instant replay.

Now that Obama has taken steps to normalize relations with Cuba, will we see games in Havana?

We're working hard to try to get to a position where we might be able to do an exhibition game in Cuba as early as 2016 — so next spring. We think it's important to play in Cuba for a host of reasons, including the fact that the U.S. government thinks it's important for us to play in Cuba. We also like markets where baseball is part of the culture. And it's also is an important source of talent.

MLB’s review center in New York monitors every game and rules on instant replay calls.

Could we see an MLB team in Cuba?

All we have is Toronto outside the U.S. right now. I'd like to see more teams outside of the U.S. as a long-term proposition. A lot would have to happen in Cuba to get to a position where they could support a major league team economically.

What about Latin America or another team in Canada?

I'd be interested in another team in Canada. We are really interested in Mexico. It's a huge broadcast market. If we can find the right location, it is possible to support a team in Mexico economically. And an increased flow of Mexican players into the big leagues combined with a team in Mexico would help us with the Hispanic market in the U.S.

Fantasy sports sites DraftKings and FanDuel are being investigated by authorities. Does the gambling piece of fantasy give you pause?

Before we got involved with DraftKings, we spent a lot of time and money making sure the baseball games on the DraftKings sites were not involved in gambling, that they fell within the statutory exemption that we didn't create, that Congress created. Beyond the legalities, I see a huge difference between someone betting on the outcome of a game and a 21-year-old kid picking nine players from eight teams and seeing if he can put together a roster that performs better than some other 21-year-old in Iowa. They're just different.

In L.A., the majority of the market can't watch the Dodgers on Time Warner Cable's SportsNet LA. How involved are you in this standoff?

Distribution disputes? We really hate them. We have an iconic franchise that's played great, and throughout the year I had it broadcast in 30 percent of the market. That's not good for us. We have been involved in it by weighing in, trying to encourage conversation, compromise. But when it's not your money on the table, there is only so much you can do. So we are hoping that before next season, the parties find a way to make a compromise and get the games on.

What if they don't?

We had a similar problem in Houston. It went on for a couple of years. Usually something happens from a business perspective that creates an atmosphere in which a resolution can be made. I'm hopeful that's going to happen in L.A.

The regional sports networks so key to MLB are targets in an era of cord-cutting and skinny bundles. Aren't we going to see more of these standoffs?

It is symptomatic of a changing media landscape. The regional sports networks have really valuable content, a large portion of which is baseball content. It's live sports programming, it's available every day, virtually, during the season, and it is what attracts people to pay cable bills. We are all aware of changes going on in terms of more consumer choice, more direct-to-consumer offerings, alterations in the bundle. And in that environment there is bound to be pressure on how much people are willing to pay for particular types of programming.

The display case contains several jerseys from Negro league teams, including the Homestead Grays.

Does this also affect MLB’s ability to keep extracting higher TV rights fees?

However that media landscape evolves, content like ours is going to be tremendously valuable, and we will continue to get paid for it because it’s the one kind of content that everybody agrees is the most valuable. We also think that we are particularly well situated to deal with changes that may occur in that media landscape because we have a great technology company [MLB Advanced Media] that was an industry leader in the delivery of product over the top.

Why did it take baseball longer than other sports to begin using on-field instant replay?

We began the use of instant replay on home runs in 2008, and the scope expanded substantially in 2014. When the system began last year, we were most motivated to correct misses in impactful, game-changing situations. I believe that we've succeeded from that perspective. Instant replay will become faster and more efficient in the years ahead, and we will be open to expanding the scope further.

One of your first mandates as commissioner was to address the length of the games, instituting several adjustments to improve the pace. But the average game is still close to three hours. 

I viewed this year as one of meaningful progress. We took some practical steps that responded to the concerns held by our fans and people in the game, and they proved successful. The trend of longer games in recent years was reversed rather significantly. The average game this year decreased by more than six minutes compared to last year. We had a constructive rapport with the players about why this topic was a priority, and I have appreciated their cooperation. We are still planning to study this issue from a number of angles, and we will continue to be responsive.

Why isn't the MLB draft turned into a TV event like the NFL and NBA?

We're really interested in that, but we have a timing problem. We draft in the spring with the idea of getting players out [on] minor league teams so they have a full summer of development. So we draft college players while they're still playing college baseball. To have a good draft program, you need players in the studio, right? That's what's exciting. But we have talked to the NCAA about trying to coordinate our calendars.

A display in the MLB offices showcases balls from several World Series.

Why isn't the home plate area mic'd?

Umpires wear microphones, particularly in postseason games. And occasionally we do put content from those microphones out. Culturally it has been an issue that we have had to work into slowly. But I think going forward you will see more microphone access on the field for the simple reason that fans want that kind of access.

Where is the resistance, from the players or the umps?

Well, both. There's a lot of back-and-forth that goes on there. You may want to hear it, but they may not want to have it [aired]. It's something that we are trying to work our way through.

What about drone cameras on the field?

Honestly, I think we're a long way away from that. Baseball is a really unpredictable game. You saw the play [on Oct. 14 when Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin threw the ball toward the pitcher and it hit the bat of the Texas Rangers' Shin-Soo Choo, resulting in a run]. Who thought a catcher as good as Russell Martin was going to hit the batter? You just don't think that stuff is going to happen. So then you have [a drone] flying around out there, how does that work? So I think we're a long way from that. 

What do you think of Derek Jeter's Players' Tribune?

I love [it]! [Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder] Andrew McCutchen did a piece [last February] about [Little League] participation and the challenges presented by the expense [of playing baseball]. It was really thoughtful. Matt Duffy did a piece about coming to the big leagues in the Giants organization, which I thought, forget baseball — and I rarely utter those words — but just as a study of a successful organization it was fascinating. And I thought McCutchen's piece on the Wild Card games was a nice endorsement of the one-game plan. So there's three good pieces that I can think of off the top of my head.

Did you read the David Ortiz piece denying he took steroids when MLB said he did?

I did. I'm less enamored of that one. (Laughs.) I do think it's great for our players to have a voice. People want access to players. And a platform that allows them to speak comfortably and give our fans that access is good for the game. Whether we like every article or not, that sort of access allows people to bond with the game in a way that is important to us.

Who would you like to see in the World Series?

From a business perspective some teams, because they are from larger markets, are going to drive higher ratings. We try to forget about all that. We’re glad for the people who win and feel sorry for those that go home.

You grew up going to Yankees games with your dad. Do you feel more sorry for the Yankees?

No, I really don't. I have gotten past that piece of fandom. I do really like to go to games. I think it's a great form of entertainment. But I really don't root.

The Mets in the World Series likely would boost ratings.