The Sports Professor’s Weekly Sports and Entertainment Dollar
From a Business Perspective, MLB Pace of Play = Fast
By Rick Horrow and Karla Swatek
From Florida to Arizona, everyone’s now back in the park, as all players have now reported to their respective Grapefruit and Cactus League squads. While newbie Commissioner Rob Manfred has many critical tasks on his home plate, including speeding up games, monitoring media rights deals, and continuing to make the game of baseball more attractive to youngsters, Manfred can rest easy knowing that overall, MLB’s business pace of play is pretty darn fast.
Last month, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig officially retired after 22 years on the job. During Selig’s tenure, MLB saw its annual revenue grow from $1 billion to about $9 billion. Selig also was responsible for introducing interleague play and instituting a tougher PED program.
While Selig accomplished a tremendous amount as Commissioner, he leaves several pieces of unfinished business for Manfred, his successor. Arguably the biggest challenge is speeding up the pace of play. MLB next season wants pitchers and hitters ready to play right out of commercial breaks in an effort to make games go faster. The union’s response to the proposal isn’t known, but if implemented, games could be shortened by 10-15 minutes.
Less than a month into the job, new MLB Commissioner Manfred is putting his stamp on America’s pastime. Manfred said that the league will stop awarding the All-Star Game by alternating AL and NL cities, instead moving toward a Super Bowl-type bidding process. The new system changes a practice that has been in place for the last 82 years.
Manfred also is consolidating MLB’s digital and social media activities under MLB Advanced Media and the MLB Network. As part of that move, MLB is shutting down the Fan Cave, its New York City-based social media hub, after four years in operation. MLB still has several years left on its lease for the Fan Cave location, and the league has several ideas for how it plans to repurpose the space.
As players report for Spring Training, new pace-of-play rules are perhaps the most important one they’ll have to learn and become accustomed to for the upcoming season. In an effort to speed up the length of games, the new rules include mandating that managers stay in the dugout during replay challenges, that hitters keep at least one foot in the batter’s box during at-bats, a prompt return to play after TV commercial breaks, and timed pitching changes. While the new rules begin in spring training, the warnings and fines will not be imposed until May.
The league, which announced the new rules along with the Players Association, established a pace-of-game committee last year to come up with recommendations for speeding up games. In 2014, the average game was a record 3 hours and 2 minutes, up from 2 hours, 33 minutes in 1981.
In addition to speeding up games, Manfred needs to combat baseball’s declining popularity among younger generations, assist new stadium efforts in Oakland and Tampa, and help settle a media rights dispute between the Nationals and Orioles.
While hitters are keeping one foot in the box, if sports media rights are in a bubble, that bubble doesn’t appear to be bursting anytime soon. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Fox Sports Arizona agreed to an extension of their media rights deal believed to be worth more than $1 billion. While specific terms of the deal were not disclosed, the deal will at least triple the annual value of the team’s previous agreement, reportedly worth $31 million annually.
The deal is sure to have an impact on the team’s finances and ability to spend on free agents. Arizona goes into this season with a $90 million payroll, 24th amongst MLB’s 30 teams. Insiders predict that total could increase to $120 million next season. Local TV contracts have become increasingly important for MLB teams, as nearly a third of the league has signed billion-dollar media rights deals since 2010. For those teams still operating under old, less lucrative TV deals, they better hope for extensions before the bubble inevitably bursts.
Finally, in an effort to make games more exciting, MLB next season could shrink the strike zone to generate more offense. Any formal rule change would have to be approved by baseball’s Playing Rules Committee. In any event, it’s refreshing to see Manfred actively work to improve the game rather than yield to outdated traditions.
If Major League Baseball is known for its players, Minor League Baseball is known for its promotions. Teams constantly are thinking of unique ways to draw fans to the ballpark beyond just the talent on the field. Promotions are so critical to Minor League Baseball that there’s an annual conference to give clubs an opportunity to learn and network. Given its significance, fans annually votes on the top promotion for all of the minor leagues’ 160 teams. In their inaugural season, the El Paso Chihuahuas took home the award for their “Bark in the Park” event. The Chihuahuas beat nine other franchises for the top prize, which was based on creativity, attention to detail, fan engagement and media response.
The Chihuahuas’ “Bark at the Park” event featured a special jersey with a picture of a Chihuahua. Additionally, with the help of the Humane Society of El Paso, the team adopted and saved a Chihuahua who was set to be euthanized. Given the high praise, we can’t wait to see what exciting ideas the team comes up with for promotions this season.
The Chihuahuas last week also held a job fair to fill 125-150 part-time jobs for the upcoming baseball season. Jobs include box office cashiers, ushers, ticket takers, parking lot attendants, guest services, security, kids playground attendants, maintenance, cleaning crew, and grounds crew. Applicants needed to be able to work 72 home games as well as additional events at the team’s home stadium.
The job fair is yet another way for the Chihuahuas to give back to the community that helped them build the $60 million Southwest University Park, and helps keep the franchise a top dog among its MiLB brethren.
Follow Rick Horrow (@RickHorrow) and Karla Swatek (@kswak) on Twitter.