MLB commissioner Rob Manfred isn’t the most popular commissioner in American sports. Far from it, really, especially among baseball fans.
Manfred has cultivated a reputation as a man who doesn’t seem to understand what makes the sport work, being labeled as someone who hates baseball by people annoyed at the ways he’s changed the game on the field with seemingly little regard.
He also comes across as a bit pedantic. All of those issues were on display in this ESPN profile by Don Van Natta Jr., which is well-worth the read. See, for example, the opening, in which Manfred is asked about this perception:
“Do you hate baseball?”
I pose this question to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred deep into an interview at Citi Field in New York.
“It is the most ridiculous thing, among some fairly ridiculous things that get said about me,” he says. “The assertion that I hate the game — that one does rub me the wrong way, I have to tell you the truth.”
Ignoring the fact that Manfred doesn’t just answer with a no, he also sidesteps the undercurrent of why people have that notion.
But more relevant to this site, Manfred also addressed a concern that many MLB fans have been raising for years now: their draconian blackout rule. According to Manfred, the league would like to end or relax the policy, but they’re prevented from doing so by existing contracts:
Many fans also complain that too many networks now broadcast MLB games, many behind paywalls. Fans say games are difficult to find and access, and blackout rules remain an irritant. “Our No. 1 business priority right now is reach,” Manfred says. The topic was a main discussion at an owners meeting in June. “Believe me,” he says, “we hate blackouts as much as fans do.” Manfred notes that the blackout clauses are written into broadcast deals — which he has overseen — but he says it’s now a “top priority” for MLB to phase them out.
It’s hard to say just how seriously anyone should take Manfred here. On one hand, yes, it would seemingly make sense for the league to adapt to what fans are actually looking for in 2022 and beyond from a media availability standpoint. Any broadcasting policy that’s been in effect for decades is almost certainly outdated now, and for a sport that should be concerned with growing a younger audience, there’s no excuse not to try and find ways to meet fans where they are.
On the other hand, this isn’t a new complaint! Manfred has been commissioner for over seven years now, and as the piece notes he’s overseen plenty of these contracts that he’s now blaming. The blackout policy was a contentious issue before that. Reacting now (and slowly at best) isn’t exactly a sign of an executive with a long-term vision.
With the league’s antitrust exemption currently under examination again, it’s no wonder that Manfred is making the rounds. The blackout policy is only viable because of that exemption, which the league clearly wants to protect at all costs. In any case, it’s a lot easier to say MLB wants to fix something than it is to actually fix something, but the latter is the only thing that matters to fans.