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'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.