Commissioner discusses topic with NBA's Silver at CES 2016
By Richard Justice
LAS VEGAS -- We've come so far in such a short period of time. We're closer than we've ever been. We're better informed, too. We know how fast the center fielder runs and how hard the shortstop throws. We see the spin on pitches, the break, the everything.
In this way, we can appreciate the magnificence of these guys playing our sport. And in this way, our games are better than ever.
"I think what's important is that you offer our fans alternatives in how they engage with the game," MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday morning.
Manfred sat a few feet from his NBA counterpart, Adam Silver, during a joint appearance at a Sports Business Forum sponsored by Turner Sports as part of the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show.
These two men represent a new generation of sports leadership. Silver has been on the job almost two years, Manfred nearly one. They are tech-savvy in ways large and small. They also understand that technology has made sports better in ways no one could have imagined not long ago.
Fans are engaged on almost every level -- statistics and HD video on their mobile devices, technology to appreciate the game, to better understand. And Manfred embraces this new world. He wrestles with it, debates how far to go. In the end, though, he loves what it has done.
Manfred is awed by it, but he believes strongly that we as fans are better off because of it. What else is there? For one thing, there are cameras the size of buttons, perfect for placing on uniforms. Should we be in the dugout or the huddle? Should we get even closer? For instance, should we communicate with players during games? Or how about throwing a question at a pitcher after he leaves a game and is getting his arm iced in the clubhouse?
"What fans want is not just to watch the game now," Manfred said. "While they're watching, they probably have some other device going, and that other device is ideally suited to provide them with access beyond the traditional play of the game they're watching.
"Social media is an opportunity to provide our fans with that type of access. 'Fan engagement' is a buzzword we all talk about all the time. But the purpose of a lot of this information is to allow the fan to understand the game better."
Manfred mentions Statcast™, which tracks the movements of players on the field and offers "the sort of information we think will draw people deeper into the game."
It's not that fans will end up going into clubhouses and team planes and all of that, necessarily, in some invasive way. It's probably only a matter of how quickly it will happen.
Manfred mentions that umpires once resisted instant replay because they believed it would diminish their control of the game on the field.
And then …
"The technology we didn't control became so good -- replays -- that it embarrassed the umpires," Manfred said. "They came around to the idea. 'OK, I can't beat 'em, I gotta join 'em, we have to have replay.'"
He said he appreciates baseball's traditions, believes they're part of why we love the game. But there's much more coming.
"I think you saw in September, the beginning of a change," Manfred said. "We had tablets in the dugout for the first time, and I do think there will be a continued evolution as technology creeps closer and closer to the field. Remember, we tweet during the Home Run Derby. We take players immediately off the field during the All-Star Game and ask them, encourage them, to engage in social media activity. You are seeing this activity get closer and closer to the field."
What's next? That's the question Silver and Manfred ask themselves continually. Will the information available at home be so complete that fans will not be compelled to attend games in person? Neither man thinks that's a danger, but both believe the ballpark experience must continue to evolve to embrace a new world.
"We sell 75 million tickets in the big leagues," Manfred said. "We sell another 41 [million to] 42 million in the Minor Leagues. That's 110 million-plus people going to ballparks every year. There's something about our game that has a social aspect to it. The pace of the game, the flow of the game, is different than other entertainment products. The ability to interact with people, that's all-important."
Silver added: "The owner of the Sacramento Kings, Vivek Ranadive, sent me an update on their brand-new arena. They're not even arenas anymore. It's an entertainment palace, a multimedia center. Our teams have done a great job of creating something entirely different than what you would get at home or on a phone or a tablet -- whether that's the ease of parking or the quality of food or merchandise or the entertainment.
"It's a little bit counterintuitive, but our season-ticket sales are at an all-time high in the history of our league. When people are living these virtual lives, they crave the ability to be around people. These are modern town halls of sorts. People still want to be around other people."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.