Rob Manfred has been selected to succeed Bud Selig as Commissioner. Bud Selig is a controversial figure for some fans due to his involvement in baseball's work stoppage in 1994, his blindness to steroid use followed by his overzealous persecution of the same, and his refusal to address longstanding issues like blackout rules or the stadium in Oakland. For casual fans, Selig was not likely a major participant in their fandom. For owners, Selig was one of them. He took a hard line against the players in 1994, made a few moves to increase revenue like interleague play and expanded playoffs, but for the most part, Selig made sure baseball stayed the same and the money flowed to the owners like never before.
Rob Manfred will face some difficulties as Commissioner. He is the status quo choice opposed by close to one-third of the owners. As a result, finding consensus, perhaps Selig's biggest strength, to make changes will be greeted with some opposition while making changes could upset his biggest supporters. Manfred inherits the office at a time when baseball is booming as a business, but as noted by many in recent weeks, he is faced with several key issues (Excellent summary at The Hardball Times).
Making sure baseball games continue without a work stoppage is the major issue for Manfred. While instant replay, blackout rules, and stadium issues in Oakland are all problems for baseball, none of those issues matter if there is no baseball. Manfred was partially responsible for keeping the peace the past few years, negotiating with the players with Selig's backing. Getting the support of the owners going forward could prove difficult. Despite record revenues that have made every owner more money and player salaries that have not kept pace with those revenues, some owners want to take a hard line stance against players when the current contract runs out at the end of 2016.
Taking a hard line against the players given the recent economics of the game would be foolish. As Dayn Perry noted, the owners were responsible for the strike in 1994, not solely because of a fight with the players, but because they could not agree amongst themselves. Unifying the owners will be a very difficult task for Manfred. While all owners are making money, some are making much more with the proliferation of regional sports networks that pay large sums of money to attract viewers that still actually watch live television, and as a result, commercials. Bridging the gaps between small market owners and the owners in New York and Los Angeles will be more difficult for Manfred than it was for Selig, a small-market owner himself for the Brewers.
I hesitated slightly using such a broad term like technology, but when the previous Commissioner admits he has never even sent an e-mail, some broad terminology might be appropriate. Baseball has done a very good job of getting its product to fans. MLBAM is far ahead of other sports. Despite blackout issues, MLB.tv is a very good, reasonably priced product that works with different devices to deliver its product to fans. The MLB At Bat app does the same. While I have a difficult time believing Bud Selig had a lot to with these developments given his above statement, it is very important that Rob Manfred continue pushing these efforts.
While local television rights deals have pushed revenues incredibly high, there is some talk of a bubble. The way people consume television is changing. Comcast and Time Warner's attempted merger is the one last power grab to keep the old bundling model alive. If television moves to an a la carte model, cable companies might not be willing to pay as much for sports programming if not everyone will be receiving sports channels. MLB needs to be prepared for a potential slowdown. The best way to combat this potential problem is to be prepared to provide the sport directly to consumers. MLB.tv is an excellent start, but blackout rules need to be adjusted now and eventually will need to disappear altogether. Pushing digital efforts forward will be key to making sure fans have access to the sport.
The issues listed above are the major issues for me. Everything else is tangential. In addition to keeping labor peace, Buster Olney mentioned pace of play, expanded replay, the A's and Rays' stadium issues, and PED issues. I do not see pace of play as a problem. People point to a need for a pitch clock and keeping batters in the box, but when comparing rating to other things on television as opposed to baseball when it aired in a completely different environment, baseball is doing well. It rates number one in many local markets. Providing three hours of programming for half the nights in a year with good ratings is a solid indicator for the sport.
If there is a change to be made regarding pace of play, I would suggest not letting the manager or pitching coach out of the dugout unless a pitching change is made. No more visits to the mound to stall for time. No more arguments over a play on the field. No more going out to see if a play should be reviewed or not. Twenty seconds between pitches is not great, but three minute breaks for no purpose is much worse. I do not have a problem with instant replay because getting the call right is fundamental to fairness.
PED-use may never go away, but major league baseball has a solid testing system in place with appropriate penalties. Any changes are likely to be minor. The A's and Rays' stadium issues are troubling, but they will get worked out just like they have been for every other team in the past twenty years. Expanded replay is coming, it is just a matter of time.
Baseball is very strong right now, and twenty years of labor peace has definitely helped. Labor peace can ensure the sport stays strong. Other issues are important, and MLB needs to stay out in front on getting its product to fans, but the most important thing is to keep playing baseball.