Long before the first batter stepped into the box at the start of his tenure as the 10th commissioner in baseball history, Rob Manfred threw out his own first pitch: Chief among his priorities would be to captivate the next generation of sports fans in a way that he was captivated when his parents took him to Yankee Stadium for the first time in 1968.
He watched his hero Mickey Mantle hit a home run from both sides of the plate that August day in 1968 and has kept his passion for the sport ever since.
Born in Rome, New York, Manfred is a graduate of Cornell's School of Labor and Industrial Relations and Harvard Law School. As he entered his third season in charge, the 58-year-old commissioner sat down with Bleacher Report last month in a suite at the Detroit Tigers' Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland, Florida, for a wide-ranging conversation on the place of the game in today's sports landscape, and where it's headed on the eve of Opening Day:
Bleacher Report: Under your watch, MLB surpassed a record $10 billion in revenues last year, the Cubs ended the most storied drought in professional sports, the 2016 World Series television ratings were at their highest since 2004, and you've signed a new Basic Agreement guaranteeing labor peace for another five years. Do you figure, aw hell, maybe I should just retire while I'm on top?
Commissioner Rob Manfred: [Chuckling] No. We had a nice 2016 but we ... think the momentum we built last year can carry over into '17. We think we learned some things about compelling storylines that we can sell to people. We did some nice things that you didn't mention over the winter: We finally got deals done so that in all but three markets, we're going to have in-market streaming of our games. We think that's important in terms of reaching younger fans. So we're really looking ahead, not back.
B/R: Early on you stated one of your main missions would be connecting with young baseball fans. How much do you feel you've accomplished, and how far do you have to go?
RM: I do think we've seen real progress. It varies market by market. I was talking with the Toronto people last week, you go and look in Toronto at the fan mix in the ballpark and we do great up there in terms of younger people. Same thing's true in San Francisco. Another area where we're seeing progress, we have nine million opens a day on At Bat (MLB's smartphone app), and the demographic of those opens does not look like our traditional broadcast audiences. It essentially averages around 30 years old. ... Everything we're doing,everythingwe're doing, is focused on making sure that we pass the game on to the next generation.
So what does that involve? We're looking hard at the game on the field, making sure that we try to eliminate dead time. We're trying to use technology—At Bat, in-market streaming—to try to make sure that we capture younger fans. Our clubs are doing a fantastic job of looking at the ticket product that they're selling. A lot of them have ... areas within the stadium where you can stand up, more of a bar-type atmosphere, all designed to attract young people into the stadium. And ... our youth participation numbers are on the uptick. ... And that's a long-term investment in the future of the game.
B/R: In what ways is connecting with the younger fans still a challenge?
RM: The biggest challenge is time commitment. Look, ours is a three-hour game. That's what it is. Convincing a generation with generally shorter attention spans that they should make this investment is a challenge, and I think it's a challenge that we're up to. That's one of the reasons we're looking at the way the game's played on the field. That's one of the reasons we're looking at different types of technology that can be interwoven in broadcasts of games to make them move in a way that's more consonant with the way that young people like to be entertained.
B/R: Individual players from other sports, especially the NBA, have become rock stars. Mike Trout is rarely seen outside of Anaheim. Not to pick on him specifically, but he doesn't participate in the World Baseball Classic or the Home Run Derby. How big of a challenge is it to market the game to a young audience when not everybody appears to be all-in?
RM: I don't put it on the players as much. I take it as our responsibility to convince them that in addition to the 162 times they go out there in a 183-day season it's worth investing additional time with us to market the game. It is a challenge because of the nature of our schedule. [But] it is incumbent upon those of us that run the business of baseball to convince these young players that it's worth it not only in terms of growing our game but, frankly, to growing their own brands.
B/R: In the Open Endorse list of 100 top athlete endorsers in 2016, only one baseball player made the top 50: David Ortiz was 42nd, Buster Posey 51st, Robinson Cano 54th and Miguel Cabrera 56th. How important is it to you to have your players out there attached to different brands?
RM: It's important to me. The single biggest [endorsement deal] we did in the offseason is the deal we made with Under Armour (10 years, beginning in 2020, for the company to supply uniforms). We had lots of options in terms of what we were going to do with our on-field [gear]. And we made lots of decisions. And they all relate to the topic you've raised.
The first decision we made was there was going to be more prominence in the branding on the front of the uniform, No. 1. Once we made that decision, No. 2 was easy, right: You want a more recognizable consumer brand. I would argue that Under Armour is one of the top two for sure, right, consumer brands that's recognizable with your athletes. No. 3, we found Under Armour to be particularly appealing because it skews young. That was really important to us. And fourth, we really made a bet on [Under Armour CEO] Kevin Plank. His enthusiasm, his willingness to make marketing a priority in the relationship and the job he's done with the Under Armour athletes we felt would help address some of the challenges that you raise.
B/R: It's difficult to market without a partner today, isn't it?
RM: That's true. And it is an association of a brand you're trying to build, a particular athlete, with a recognizable consumer brand. And it's not just the association. They're taking that athlete for their own purposes and they're putting their money, their marketing muscle, behind that athlete as well. And it's something we've lacked in this sport.
B/R: It's the old, "It's all about the shoes."
RM: Exactly. Sneakers are a more direct carryover to the market, but you know what? The right marks on the right shoes on the baseball field can make a difference."
B/R: The world is changing so quickly, are there paths you started to head down when you first took over this job that you abandoned for new strategies already?
RM: I think that it's an inexact science, but the trick is this: not to quit on anything too soon. All of this takes time. It's an investment. There were certain things we tried in the youth space where we decided we wanted to go a different direction. For example, in the beginning, we were more focused on MLB as a brand in the youth participation spaces. I think today we're more interested in MLB as a good partner to great youth organizations where we get some synergy together.
We are more interested in marketing the sport around events as opposed to marketing it through traditional advertising than we were at the beginning. Great example of that, we think we got more bang for what we spent on the Fort Bragg event (last July 3, the Braves and Marlins played the first MLB game on an active military base in Fort Bragg, N.C.) than any amount of advertising we could have purchased. And we'll have some more coming this year (the MLB Little League Classic between the Cardinals and Pirates on Aug. 20 in Williamsport, Pennsylvania).
B/R: Where does engaging on platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook stand now in growing the game, and where do you see it going over the next couple of years in terms of reaching your desired audience?
RM: At Bat and our captive platforms were such a success that for awhile, strategically, we tended to have our best stuff only on our platforms. I think in the past couple of years you've seen a real change. We have big partnerships with Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook. We're doing more and more on social media because that's where people are and we understand that. It's where that demographic that we're looking to hook lives, and we need to live where they live.
B/R: On the heels of an emotional Cubs World Series win, coupled with the high television ratings, combined with the NFL's declining ratings in 2016, is there a window right now through which to steer MLB's momentum?
RM: I look at the Cubs and Indians not as a one-time event. I look at it more as a demonstration of the fundamental strength of our game. It's something we should aspire to every year. Some of it is beyond your control because you're going to get whatever matchups the competition produces. But there are things beyond matchups that you can learn from something like the Cubs and Indians.
The storylines out of that were compelling. I think if we work hard when our postseason teams begin to coalesce, there are storylines out there. We just have to find them and make people aware of them. Are they all going to be as big as the Cubs breaking the curse? Of course not. But they can make our postseason, our product, more compelling.
B/R: You've talked about the need to create more action, and certainly the numbers support your desire. In the 2016 regular season, a record 30.2 percent of all plate appearances failed to produce a fair ball, instead ending in a strikeout, walk or hit batter. How much are you alarmed by this and where does adjusting the strike zone up stand?
RM: It's not about whether or not we should change the game. The game has changed. The question is, should we be more like other professional sports and more actively manage that change to produce the kind of product we want to have out there on the field. Me? I'm one for active management of that change. I think it's really important for us to look at.
Strike zones, great example of it. Years ago, we thought when the strike zone was higher on the knee that the low pitch wasn't getting called. We moved it to the hollow of the knee to try to get the umpires to call that. Interesting thing happens: Technology gets laid on top of that, our umpire force starts to turn over, they all get used to being evaluated and all of a sudden, they're actually calling it where we told them to call it. You can't blame the umpires on this. They're doing exactly what we told them, and the technology told them that they were doing what we told them to do. The problem with that pitch is, it's tough to hit. So the question becomes do you make an adjustment? And honestly, if we moved it from the hollow of the knee up to where it was before, I think modern civilization is going to survive.
B/R: You do?
RM: I am quite a believer that the game will survive, nothing's going to change it. Those sorts of changes are necessary to respond to the organic change that goes on in the game. Remember, the organic change is not managed in any central way. It happens as a result of 30 GMs and 30 managers doing everything they can to win one more game. That doesn't necessarily produce the best product on the field.
B/R: In a way, could what seems like one of baseball's strengths, the grouchy purist, be a negative?
RM: I always have been a quantitatively driven decision-maker. So when we think about what we're doing on the field, we have one really good guidepost, and that is, what do our fans think? We do quantitative research, we do focus groups, we read, we listen, and you can find the sweet spot of what fans want and change the game in response to that and get away with it without a lot of controversy. Best single example in recent memory: instant replay. People wanted us to use technology to get calls right, and even though there are some downsides, right—it takes time, it does take some of the human element out of it—overwhelmingly, people agree it's made the game better. You get there by listening to the fans.
B/R: Where is replay in relation to where you'd like it to be?
RM: We were actually faster last year than we were the year before. Faster's better. Less dead time is always better. We don't have many of them, but there are three- and four-minute replays. You know, there's an argument that if you can't decide in a couple of minutes...
B/R: Go with the umpire's call.
RM: That's right. Me personally, I'd like to see some action in those two areas because, again, dead time, there's really no argument that it's a good thing for anybody.
B/R: How about doing away with the four-pitch intentional walk?
RM: That's a symbolic change. It's not going to alter anyone's perception of the pace of the game overall. But you know what? If you can change it and people say, "They're being responsive to our [desires]," that's a good thing, even if it's a little good thing.
B/R: Early in your tenure, you floated the ideas of outlawing the shift and limiting the number of relievers a manager can use in an inning. Where are you today on those ideas? Have you jumped off of them?
RM: I took a lot of heat on the shifts early on. The fact of the matter is, what has happened since I made those remarks suggests that I might have been right. Because the number of shifts has increased exponentially and it has changed the game. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that it's exacerbated some of the fundamental trends, particularly for certain types of hitters, in strikeouts and home runs. Because if you have nowhere to hit it, one of two things happen: You strike out or you hit a home run. ... Arguably at the beginning some teams had an advantage because they shifted and others didn't. What I'd argue to you about shifts, everybody's doing it now, it's just changing the game with no competitive advantage, so let's just get rid of them, you know?
Dead-time changes truly do not affect the competitive character of the game in a meaningful way. So I'm gung-ho on those. Mound visits, time for instant replay.
Relief pitchers? That's even further down the spectrum. You are changing the way the game is played on the field. It's not just dead time. But I do think it's one that, while it shouldn't be at the top of the list because it affects competitive issues, has to stay on the table. We have to keep those issues on the table until we're satisfied that we're presenting a fast-paced, action-filled product that's consistent with the history and traditions of the game.
B/R: Would you really put a man on second base to start extra innings? What's next, ghost runners?
RM: Biggest picture: We've got three kinds of changes that we make in the rules. The first are the dead-time changes. The second are ones that can affect the way the game is played, and they're usually directed at action in the game—the strike zone would be one of those—and there's a third category that would be things like World Baseball Classic pitch counts and the runners-on-base-in-extra-innings rule that we're using only in the lowest of the minor leagues.
[That last category] serves a specific purpose in a specific event. WBC pitch limits prevent overuse of pitchers too early in the season. In the developmental leagues, most of those games, it's hot, there's not many people there, they're developmental. They're not commercial products. So the idea of playing 18 innings and having a shortstop finish as the pitcher, what's the developmental purpose of that? We don't really expect we're going to move that to Major League Baseball, but it serves a purpose there.
I'm in favor of it for a second reason: You do it, you might learn something. You watch what happens and maybe you get an idea. Maybe it's not that idea but you get another derivative idea that you can't take to the big leagues. I think people misunderstand what our intention is there.
B/R: Regarding your management style, you've been very open-minded, and where other leaders may freak out over the small stuff, you seem to welcome public debate as you work through various processes. Have you always been that way?
RM: That's a product of where I came from. When you work in labor relations for a long part of your career you have to embrace the idea that an exchange of ideas can produce creative solutions. I prefer people to disagree with me because I really don't think I'm smart enough to know what all the answers are and I think the back and forth ... we have a lot of it in our office, strong personalities, big intellects, good ideas—I think that back and forth has produced better strategies and tactics for us than if I sat in my office and decided we're doing those 10 things and that's the end of it.
B/R: The Black Lives Matter movement has made quite an impact nationally. In baseball, diverse hires in managing and general managing remains a struggle. Dusty Baker (Nationals), Dave Roberts (Dodgers) and Rick Renteria (White Sox) are the only three minority managers. What's your evaluation as things stand today?
RM: Thirty jobs at any particular point in time is a tough snapshot to judge any institution against. Our biggest single focus is on developing young African-American players here in the United States to promote our diversity.
Big picture, our diversity is pretty good, right? Latinos. But I understand that the focus generally is on African-Americans. The first round [of the draft] the last five years has been 20 percent African-American, and almost every one of those kids that were African-American had some touch point with one of our programs. The RBI program, the Urban Youth Academies, the Elite Development Academies, we're trying to hit all the areas in which we can encourage development among the African-American community. We feel that that will work its way through the system. It's not just the players that wind up on the field. People end up in front office jobs, people become managers, so we're working hard at the long-term so we're not out there scrambling to figure out if we have at least one minority manager among the 30. We feel it's a long-term issue.
B/R: Where do you see the game going next? International games, we already have. International teams?
RM: International teams should be an aspiration for our future. Who knows what it's going to look like in the future, but today there are certain geographic limitations. But even within those geographic limitations certainly there are places within North America, Central America that would be possible for us to play on a regular basis. In reality, New York to London is not that much further than New York to the West Coast.
B/R: What's the best part of being commissioner?
RM: Where we're sitting right now (in a suite overlooking the field at Joker Marchant Stadium in Lakeland). When they let me go to ballparks, when I have time, that's absolutely the best. You get to see the green grass, you get to see your fans, you get to interact with those fans and you get to see the greatest game in the world.
B/R: You worked in the commissioner's office for so long before taking charge, is there anything that has surprised you about the job?
RM: People pay more attention to what you say than I thought. I know they pay attention to the game. The game's actually interesting, I don't find me to be that interesting. But I am realistic enough to understand it's not about me, it's about the fact that I'm speaking for the game and people care so deeply about the game that they're watching to make sure that you do the right thing. And I feel a real responsibility to try to do the right thing as a result.
B/R: When did you first realize that?
RM: It was the very first interview I did. I talked about the shifts. I got tons of emails, I got papers, papers with footnotes, scholarly papers explaining to me why I was wrong. I'll tell you another example: This whole thing about putting the runner on in extra innings. We never announced it, and the amount of ink that has been spilled, that's an example again of how deeply people care what you're doing with the game.
B/R: What's your most treasured baseball moment from before you worked in the game?
RM: That's easy. My first game was in August of 1968 at Yankee Stadium. I was 10. My parents drove—I have an older sister and a younger brother. The five of us came down from upstate New York. Stayed in Elmsford in a Howard Johnson's, went to Yankee Stadium, and the Yankees lost to the Twins 3-2 but Mickey Mantle hit two solo home runs. I was a big Mickey Mantle fan. We went back the next day. That was Mel Stottlemyre's best year; I think he won 21 games that year, had a great ERA. He started against the Twins and he gave up [seven] runs in the first two innings. They got beat 11 to something [11-2]. We saw them lose twice but it was a great experience.
B/R: Coming out of spring training, it's always prediction time. What do you predict will be the biggest change in the game by the time you are finished serving as commissioner?
RM: I hope that the biggest change in the game is that people are saying that Major League Baseball owns the next generation. That is what I aspire to, everything we're trying to do is about that, and I hope I have enough time and enough help to get that done.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.