Manfred, Bettman talk sports in digital age

MLB, NHL Commissioners discuss fast-changing landscape at Manhattan event

Manfred, Bettman talk sports in digital age

NEW YORK -- Rob Manfred and Gary Bettman are Commissioners of the two longest-running professional sports leagues in North America, and they are also partners through the recent digital rights deal between Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.

On Wednesday afternoon, the pair were together as speakers for the Paley Media Council's luncheon at the Paley Center in Manhattan, moderated by Abe Madkour of the SportsBusiness Journal. They talked about the fast-changing media landscape, vision and execution, the MLB-NHL digital partnership and more.

On the pressures of being Commissioner

Manfred: A single thing that hit me after I got elected -- and it started in the selection process -- you had to take some vision about what you want to do with the business. I think that that is a very challenging transition. I had a lot of good people [and] we had some simple things that we think are really important to business. No. 1 is youth. I've got kids, and the youth space is really competitive. We weren't spending any, not just money -- we weren't paying any attention to what was going on with youth sports. And it's probably our single biggest, most-focused initiative today. ... Technology, because of what (MLBAM) was, because of its leadership position, because of the connection of technology to youth, it wasn't hard to sort of figure out step two.

And I think the third one is the one that's morphed over the first 18 months or so, internationalization of the game. When we started talking about it, baseball has some great pockets of strength -- Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Latin America, obviously North America -- but it doesn't have the reach of some other sports globally, and we thought it was important to get on that in terms of the long-term growth of the game. As we've started to see technology develop and change, we've come to realize that with things like virtual reality, it's not so much that you're going to play in Australia on a regular basis -- it's too far for us, especially with our schedule -- but you have to have a fan base, and there is a huge opportunity to have a fan base that can consume using that type of technology if you can jump-start some interest in those distant markets.

Bettman: I think it was Walter Isaacson who said, "Vision without execution is hallucination." You built credibility by doing that and by achieving a level of success. To me, the thing that's always been the most important thing is the game. Everything else you do -- whether or not it's any aspect of your business, it's media connectivity, it's grassroots programming, it's filling your buildings, it's marketing and promotions -- if the game isn't good, if you don't have a competitive, entertaining, exciting game, you can market all you want, but that is not authentic. All of us need to maintain our authenticity. The games have to be perceived as having integrity, decided on their merits, and then skill is what is ultimately prevailing.

Manfred: The hardest thing, thinking about the future, is the game itself. It's particularly hard in our sport because of the history and tradition. You've got to be really careful about what you do, because there are so many people who are bound up in the traditions of the game that you can't offend. But by the same token, it's hard in today's world, to have any institution, even one that is so embedded in culture like baseball, you have to change. You cannot stay the same.

One of the really important things about our product is, it is an everyday activity. Before I was working for baseball and even more now, the first place I go in the morning during the season is to see exactly what happened. I used to do it with a newspaper, now I do it with the MLB.com At Bat app, it's a lot faster and a lot better, but you still do it. I do think there is an everyday nature to it. I do know that some of the things that have happened -- dealing with performance-enhancing drugs, amphetamines and those sorts of issues, that have changed players' lives -- what's really interesting, when you look at our playoff format, more than any other sport, what our players tell us is that they don't want too much time off. There's something about baseball that when you're not doing it almost every day, it gets you out of whack.

On the MLB and NHL collaboration

Bettman: Let me answer this question in two ways. BAM has been extraordinary. ... They are cutting edge, extraordinarily professional, great at what they do. When we were evaluating what we should do moving forward, I think universally it was claimed that when we launched NHL.com seven or eight years ago, we were leading in this space. And over time, for a variety of reasons, our leadership position eroded, and I wanted to take a fresh look at what we were doing. We scoured the marketplace in terms of who would be good vendors, who would be good partners. Ultimately we reached two conclusions. One, BAM would be the best. ... Secondly ... we knew that they weren't going to try to turn hockey into baseball, and they would treat hockey with the excitement and energy it deserved, and so we and ultimately NHL owners were more than comfortable that this would be a great partnership.

Everything that BAM has been doing spectacularly with baseball in terms of connectivity and what's available, whether it's streaming, they're making available in the same formats as is appropriate to hockey. But also, the depth in the organization and the expertise they have, there isn't anything that's going to come down the pipe that they're not going to be on top of, and if it makes sense, they're going to do it.

The NHL Network has been better for us, more highly produced. You know, if you think back 40 years ago or so, what was ESPN? It was a platform that started aggregating content. Well, BAM Tech may be in the process of replicating it for the next 100 years or whatever.

On the future of sports media distribution

Bettman: From a sports standpoint, it's going to be distributed, it's going to be consumed, and as long as we don't make the mistakes of the music industry and give it away, we'll be fine.

On the biggest change in business since both have been in sports

Manfred: The media thing, I think, has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Over the longer haul, the biggest change is the way sports are managed. When I started, all the talent acquisition and business was done based on somebody with a black box view of what talent was about. They talked about five tools, and no one could ever remember what the five tools quite were, no one knew how to evaluate them. Now, on the talent side of the business, the putting-the-teams-together side of the business, the level of professionalism and analytics that's come into it has been just incredibly revolutionary. ... I think the clubs that do the best today have found a way to combine those analytics with sort of the traditional mode of evaluation.

Bettman: When I started, there were no dot-com websites, there was no streaming. In fact, if you wanted a score, you had to call Sports Phone, and that was an innovation. The ability to get instantaneous information is unprecedented. In our case as well, high-definition television has made a huge difference in terms of the watchability of our game because of the speed and the movement of our players and how plays are set up.

But the biggest change overall is that our fans and media give us more scrutiny -- that's part of the world we live in -- and our fans have the ability to connect in all aspects of the game more than ever before. One of the byproducts, and I don't think it's a bad thing, is the level of accountability that our athletes have, and we all have, and our decision-making is getting more scrutiny than ever before, and we are more accountable than ever before.

Manfred: I started as an outside lawyer in 1987. What Gary is saying about the lack of sophistication at the league level, we were laughing about this story. I was a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius. There is a letter in the files of Baseball where a partner at Morgan, Lewis & Bockius wrote to Baseball and said, "We would like to have our site be MLB.com when people refer to Morgan, Lewis & Bockius." There is, from a lawyer who shall remain nameless, a letter back saying, "I don't know what the internet is, do whatever the hell it is you want." I arrived Day One in '98, I was sort of taking the client, I've taken a young partner with me who did all the work, so I'm not the most popular guy at Morgan, Lewis right now. They're kind of wondering what's happening to this huge client. Paul Beeston, then the president, called me and said, "These McKinsey people are talking to me about this name thing. I don't know what it is really, but right now we're using majorleaguebaseball.com, and they're telling me it's too damn long, and we need MLB." He hands me the two letters. He says, "The first thing I need you to do is go get that back from the firm." So I made a deal for the stationery costs. We paid for the reprinting of their stationery, and that's what we did to get MLB.com.

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.