Manfred’s Small Ball Pays Dividends

David Preschlack walked into a meeting with Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred to discuss a deal to allow in-market online game streaming for NBC Sports Group’s regional networks. His top priority was working past a handful of major issues that could potentially create “logjams.”

To be sure, Preschlack, the president of NBC Sports Regional Networks and NBC Sports Group Platform and Content Strategy, had another 15 to 20 “below the line” issues in his notes, as well, but he wasn't going to bother the commissioner with the nitty gritty of those details.

“Rob walked in the door and said, ‘Take me through the issues,’ ” Preschlack recalled. Preschlack sketched out the four or five that were top of mind and left it at that. “[Manfred] asked me if that was everything and I said, ‘no,’ and mentioned the smaller points that could be left for someone else. He said, ‘No, take me through all the issues.’ And he took out his pad and we spent the next 45 minutes going through them all.”

It was, Preschlack said, an impressive display of MLB's commitment to the deal —and the sort of “solutions-oriented” move that explains why Manfred is one of B&C’s Sports Executives of the Year.

“I've never seen someone at that level of chief executive do that, they usually don't engage in those details,” Preschlack, the former longtime ESPN executive, said. “But he really helped get the deal done. He had an integral role. He figured out what worked for both parties.”

Focused on Fall Classic

Manfred was too busy for an interview for this story; there was a little something called the World Series going on, in which two talented teams with dramatic back stories, for the second straight year, kept baseball fans on the edge of their seats deep into the night all the way to November.

Oct. 29’s epic Game 5 drew nearly 19 million viewers — a slight dip from last year’s Fall Classic, but 50% higher than 2014, before Manfred took over. The Houston Astros defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in this year’s seven-game affair.

This story, though, can sing Manfred’s praises in a way that is classic baseball: With healthy doses of statistics and with a mix of executives singing his praise about his qualities as both a leader and a teammate.

Baseball’s regular season ratings were strong nationally, with Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN averaging 1.76 million viewers, up 8% from 2016 (and the household rating was up 10%); viewers ages 18-34 and 18-49 along with men 25-54 also showed an uptick.

Even the All-Star Game, which has struggled for relevance, posted impressive numbers: across Fox, Fox Deportes and the Fox Sports Go app, the game was up 7% to 8.8 million viewers. Fox’s growth was the biggest annual increase for the All-Star Game since 2008, the swan song for the original Yankee Stadium. That’s particularly noteworthy because Manfred had stripped out a gimmick instituted by predecessor Bud Selig which awarded home field advantage for the World Series to the representative of the winning league. “It took leadership not just to stand on [what Selig had established], to not just keep doing things the way we've done them,” Fox Sports president Eric Shanks said.

Manfred has also tweaked the Home Run Derby since taking office and this year's power display on ESPN was the most-watched since 2008 and the second-most watched since 1999, outscoring both the NBA All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl. It was also the most-streamed ESPN MLB event ever, drawing an average minute audience of 209,900 viewers, and the largest for a Hispanic audience ever if you combine the viewership on ESPN2 and the Spanish-language telecast on ESPN Deportes.

“Rob has brought new energy and innovation to the game, and we have seen the results in our ratings and in the overall interest in baseball,” ESPN president John Skipper said, heaping praise not just for the Home Run Derby revamp but for bringing Major League Baseball to such disparate locations as Cuba and the Little League World Series to help boost interest in the game.

Added Preschlack: “On every issue, whether it’s youth participation or pace of play, Rob honors the game’s traditions but also works to find what's best for the game today.”

Baseball’s strength, unlike football, has always been local, and the numbers remain potent there as well. While there were some ratings dips at the Comcast-NBC and AT&T SportsNet-Root Sports regional sports networks, Fox’s 12 RSNs followed the pattern of growth on the national coverage at Fox and FS1. Most important, eight of those 12 delivered year-to-year ratings increases in primetime. Seven were up by double-digits: the New York Yankees and Atlanta Braves (+56%), Milwaukee Brewers (+44%), Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins (+30%), Arizona Diamondbacks (+28%) and Cincinnati Reds (+19%).

“It's no coincidence that Rob is at the forefront when this is happening,” Shanks said. “Rob has a vision for the sport.” (Manfred has even said he expects to someday have machines calling balls and strikes for improved accuracy.)

Manfred, who negotiated a new labor deal peacefully last year, is still beholden to the owners like any sports commissioner. Unlike NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, he generally has the respect of the players and the media for handling most controversies fairly.

His domestic violence penalties have been deemed substantial but fair, and when Astros first baseman Yuli Gurriel made a racist gesture about Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish following his home run in Game 3 of the World Series, Manfred acknowledged the seriousness of it but did not disrupt the series itself. Instead, Gurriel was suspended for five games at the start of 2018. (Most similar incidents have received a two-game suspension.)

He has also said that this off-season he plans to address concerns that the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo logo is racist.

'Great Moral Compass'

Manfred has “a great moral compass,” Preschlack said.

“He's a true consensus builder,” Shanks said, adding that Manfred's work for MLB before he became commissioner in bringing labor peace gave him a deep understanding of the players and the union “so he can reach a reasonable decision that is fair in the moment.”

Ultimately, Shanks said, it's impossible to measure which individual pieces of Manfred's tenure have impacted the sport's success, especially since it is the on-field play of teams like the 2016 champion Chicago Cubs and stars like Aaron Judge of the Yankees and Jose Altuve of the Astros who have made the biggest mark. But Shanks said Manfred certainly deserves credit for setting the tone.

“He has put together as strong a team as I have ever seen around a commissioner,” Shanks said. “What matters is a track record of making good decisions — in the stock market, you look at whether you trust the management in charge of the company. And right now, if baseball was a stock, it would definitely be a buy.”