New MLB Commish Says Digital Media and Hispanic Marketing Can Grow Baseball

Rob Manfred also wants faster play, in-market streaming and more social

Rob Manfred Major League Baseball

Rob Manfred's reign as the 10th commissioner of Major League Baseball will begin in earnest Sunday night with the first pitch of the regular season. The 56-year-old former lawyer, who has worked for the league about half his life, is putting "pace of play"—or speeding up games so they average less than three hours in an era of fast-moving digital consumption—near the forefront of his agenda.

For the first time, MLB is requiring hitters to keep one foot in the batter's box—with some exceptions to the rule—and is attempting to limit the time between innings to two minutes, 25 seconds. Baseball staffers will keep a sharp eye on pitchers' time usage, issuing warnings and fines to the worst loiterers on the mound. The league is also testing a pitch clock at the minor-league level.

"I don't have in my head that I want to go from 3:02 [three hours and two minutes] to 2:58 or 2:50—I have no particular number in mind," Manfred, a native of Rome, N.Y., told Adweek. "At the end of the year, I hope that knowledgeable observers and fans know that it wasn't radical, but the games just seemed a little crisper."

What does this mean for big-spending MLB sponsors like Budweiser, General Motors and Pepsi? Ultimately, that Manfred and his team are after the same idea as they are, aiming for better engagement with smartphone-toting fans who will waste little time before moving on to another interactive option.

We chatted with the new commish about marketing-related topics: hiring the league's first Hispanic agency of record in LatinWorks; the perception that baseball has faded from national prominence; and what digital consumerism means to the future of hardball. In addition, while Manfred didn't explicitly say so, the fact that MLB's executive leader is now calling New York City home—as opposed to Milwaukee, the base of outgoing commissioner Bud Selig—should bode well for the game's relationship with Madison Avenue.

Adweek: Is MLB, under your stewardship this season, taking a different marketing approach to create more viewers and sell more tickets?
Rob Manfred: We made a bunch of changes actually. We hired two new agencies, Anomaly, and then LatinWorks, which is [running our most comprehensive] Hispanic-focused marketing effort. More generally our approach tends to take a long-term view about the growth of the game that's focused on youth. Our research suggests that there are two biggest determinants of [fandom]: Did you play the game as a kid? And how old were you when your parents took you to the ballpark for the first time? So, we're focusing on youth participation, which is obviously a long-term investment. But we're also running a number of programs and promotions directed at encouraging parents and grandparents to take kids to the ballpark.

About the Hispanic-focused effort: Will it manifest entirely in the U.S., or will it also entail Caribbean countries and other regions?
We have a very diverse workforce, and we believe that, with some additional emphasis in this space, we can increase the diversity in our fan base. It's an important outreach effort for us in terms of growth of the game. We see both Mexico and the Caribbean as principle points of focus in terms of the internationalization of the game. Obviously, Mexico and other countries in the Caribbean have baseball ingrained as part of their culture, and you feel that those are opportunities that are really right for us.

Will you deal differently with media/advertising partners than Bud Selig?
I don't love the idea of drawing broad characterizations to my predecessor. Obviously we're very close—I worked for him for a very long time. I would say that my style is to be actively engaged with our major media and advertising partners. You know, I'm here in New York instead of in Milwaukee. I like to have personal relationships with our major partners. I'm an ongoing-dialogue person, on the theory that I'm always looking for opportunities to help them and for opportunities for them to help us. 

The new commish hopes to put his stamp on the game. | Photo: Getty Images

There is a perception out there that baseball is increasingly niche.
It's interesting. I hear this all the time: the niche localization of the game. Let me make a couple of points here. You know, our local activity is tremendously strong. I think there were 11 markets last year where the top-rated summer programming was Major League Baseball. And given that all of our games, I mean, think about it, virtually every game is available on television. So the idea that fans are going to follow their local team, as opposed to a game involving two teams from another market, is hardly surprising. I think the biggest challenge for us over the season is to take our massive local interest and transfer as much of [it] as you possibly can into our postseason.

The 2014 Kansas City Royals storyline, of course, is the kind of thing that almost everyone wants.
You put your finger right on it. That story was spontaneous. There was so much interest in the narrative surrounding Kansas City that it really helped in terms of the excitement and the draw of our postseason. What we're working on is to see if we can help those stories develop over the course of the season so that we don't have to rely on getting lucky and having the Kansas City type of story.

Let's move on to interactive. MLB has been Web-streaming games for several years. What are the digital areas in which the league could raise the bar?
The most important and immediate concern is—[while] we stream outside our local markets—we are not currently streaming games in market. We're having conversations with the [regional sports networks] and the major distributors in an effort to rectify that situation.

Is that so important because of that cord-cutting movement going on with younger generations?
No, from our perspective, it's not about the cable model and cord-cutting. It's about providing our fans with maximum access to our games on any device.

Consumers are gravitating toward mobile devices. Is that a challenge or an opportunity for your league?
Oh, it's a huge opportunity for us. Our presence with and MLB Advanced Media [video] on mobile, it's a huge strength in this industry. It's a strength that will continue to go on and go forward.

Do you think that league marketers are doing a good enough job with social?
Well, I think social media is a space that we need to continue to work on. You know, our principle efforts with respect to the pure marketing of the game are going to be player-focused. We're at an interesting spot from the generational perspective—the Derek Jeter generation has kind of moved on, and we're going to be making a conscious effort to market the new stars of the game—the Mike Trouts, the Clayton Kershaws and Andrew McCutchens. Those folks are great players and great young people, and that's going to be a principle focus of our marketing efforts. Social is important, obviously, particularly with younger players who kind of carry younger fans.

Bud Selig once said he doesn't use email and never will. How about you, Rob?
[Laughter.] That is, like, the funniest. You know what? I am the original plugged-in guy. I carry two iPads, an iPhone ... I mean, that stuff, it gets a lot of work when I'm here. 

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