Commissioners discuss future of sports

Commissioners discuss future of sports

NEW YORK -- They oversee a combined revenue of $21.2 billion, push their clubs to share best practices during a recession, face issues that reflect society as a whole, embrace international growth as a necessity, view their digital empires as the future of information, joke and jab playfully with each other, and rarely have a chance to all get together on the same stage to chat.

On Wednesday morning, the four commissioners of the major North American professional sports leagues assembled atop the Mandarin Oriental hotel next to Central Park: Bud Selig of Major League Baseball, David Stern of the National Basketball Association, Roger Goodell of the National Football League and Gary Bettman of the National Hockey League. The Wall Street Journal conducted the gathering, and distributed programs that read on the cover for business leaders in the crowd: "A discussion on The Future of Sports with The Comissioners."

OK, maybe that misspelling was a nod to dot com(m)s. After all, following Bettman's reaction to the latest news of the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy filing, the discussion opened with a lengthy conversation about the future of sports media based primarily around digital information and the gradual decline of print newspapers. Moderator Sam Walker, sports editor of the Journal, specifically asked about what is happening in Boston -- describing it as a current "utopia" for sports fans, but now with its own Boston Globe as the latest endangered species on the newspaper list.

"Everything in life is changing," said Selig, founding father of MLB.com, Major League Baseball Advanced Media, and now MLB Network. "The Boston Globe, from a baseball standpoint, has always had great baseball coverage -- remarkable baseball coverage over the last 50, 60, 70 years -- and clearly has helped the Red Sox. But it isn't only Boston. Baseball is played in a 183-day season, 162 games, and day-to-day coverage of newspapers has been helpful over the past 'X' amount of decades. If that is about to change in any way, and it clearly has in many places, I guess the sports themselves, we have grappled with that and we understand we have to make changes to continue the linkage with fans. Whenever media in whatever city get to be less and less of a factor, we'll have to do things to pick that up. Because, in our sport that is stat-driven, day-to-day driven, we need to continue that linkage, whether with the Internet or the (MLB Network) channel, whatever we need."

"People are consuming their sports differently, and that's one reason papers are in trouble, because we can give you your information instantaneously, and sound bytes, with us or any of the other sports every night," Bettman said. "The important thing for newspapers going forward is they have to have content, columnists, features, stories you can't get anywhere else. If they're just going to do wire stories of the game, then they are not going to have a chance because we can do that, and faster."

Stern, dean of the four commissioners after a quarter-century at the NBA's helm, said: "The handwriting is not on the wall, it's set in mud. Nevertheless, you can see by age and demographic, whether cable or Internet, the news is being consumed by consumers and we just have to adapt to that. Newspapers have to adapt or they won't survive."

The moderator asked if fans can get "credible coverage" going forward. Goodell noted that his management team had just met with Associated Press Sports Editors before the recent NFL Draft and discussed this same issue.

"There's a lot to be said for independence of sports journalism," Goodell said. "That doesn't mean we couldn't distribute content they create on boston.com, for example. It isn't any way filtered by the NFL; it goes directly on the site. Our industries have been good for each other. We've helped the paper business but certainly the paper business has helped us. I think of (late Boston sports columnist and TV analyst) Will McDonough and what he did to help the NFL. That would be greatly missed."

MLB president Bob DuPuy, among those watching the event, said he was struck mostly by the "commonality" of the four men and how it seemed they all could answer with almost the same response on any question asked. All four took umbrage to the moderator's contention that (a) what has happened to the residential real estate market could hit pro sports as well in terms of being "trapped in these gilded sports palaces", and (b) the lofty valuation of some European soccer franchises may be a sign that the four North American leagues "dropped the ball" and failed to capitalize on global opportunity.

"There are going to be adjustments based on economy. They'll do fine, but they'll do less," Stern said. "As we go through the economy, some mechanism for the price will be built in. That's why our teams are working so hard sharing best practices -- it's hard work. And it's going to be harder certainly now. There will be a period of adjustment, but it will continue to grow."

Selig's league just opened the 11th and 12th new ballparks of this decade, the most new ballpark openings in any decade in modern MLB history, and he took a crack at that stadium question.

"To call them 'gilded palaces,' I wish I could take you to St. Louis and Detroit and Pittsburgh," he said. "They're not gilded palaces. We held our ticket prices down. Clubs, as David said, are working harder than I've ever seen. We have these fan initiatives now in Pittsburgh, Detroit, elsewhere -- and what they're doing is working harder. We're in an economy that is down to its lowest levels since the Depression. We're not any different than anyone else in the world. We're continuing to make a big adjustment.

"Clubs put money into their stadiums. We built ballparks that look like old ballparks, whether an Ebbets Field or a Crosley Field and on and on. ... If you went to city after city and asked people, in retrospect, 'Was this good for your community?' -- you'd get a 'yes' every time. Whether economically, sociologically, there's a myriad of ways to look at stadiums. They've been good for the communities."

Stern, sitting on Selig's immediate right, sensed the audience and the moderating company's role and said playfully: "Say no, Bud. There is no way there can be a foreclosure!"

Selig replied: "I can say it because I know, David. There is no chance of a foreclosure. I don't see any potential of that. With all due respect, David, I can say, 'no,' and 'no' is the final answer."

Bettman was the most outspoken on any issue of the day when he flipped the question about soccer around and declared that the world's best athletes are in North America:

"The fact is, our franchises are here, and while we're all doing business around the world, our impact obviously will be greater where our franchises are, and where our primary fans are. They are the ones who we need to serve first. If we're all dropping the ball in the rest of the world, what happened to soccer here? Why has soccer, despite its world popularity, not risen to the level of any of our four sports? I say we have the best athletes in the world playing our sports. And soccer's best athletes aren't here yet. And until that changes, I don't think soccer will achieve what it wants in North America."

All four commissioners touted their league's international efforts. Selig cited the recent World Baseball Classic and other global efforts by MLB as "remarkable," and in his case the response to that question may be mildly surprising to some. He said: "The four sports have been very aggressive, continue to be. If someone would say to me, 'If the economy straightens out, if all goes well, what would be the biggest difference today? ' I think we will say: 'International recognition.'"

Selig also disputed the notion that the family is no longer the "heavy user" among sports fandom.

"On the contrary. If that were true, we wouldn't have had the attendance explosion we had last decade," Selig said. "Just the reverse. People talk about how the early '50s was baseball's golden era. The average attendance was 13,000 people then. Today it's 33,000 people. You couldn't do that if you weren't appealing for families to come back over and over. And the way teams market all over the country, that's the family that makes the sport what it is, and to do that, that's how you market. No, just the antithesis is true."

Walker asked Goodell a question from a reader about added risk to injury facing players if the NFL adds two regular-season games to its schedule, as discussed. Goodell has advocated for that shift, saying the league would halve its four-game preseason games to compensate.

Goodell said his league's research has shown that injuries decline late in the regular season. He added that fans would find an 18-game regular season more entertaining, saying, "They continually tell me directly and through our research that preseason games are not of value to them."

That prompted Stern, whose league is in offseason then, to say of an expanded NFL schedule: "As a New York Giants season ticket holder, let me say I love August football games."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.