February 26, 2024

RSN upheaval could delay MLB expansion, and other owners meetings takeaways

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — In December of 2022, in the middle of an offseason dominated by big spending from the New York Mets and San Diego Padres, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred didn’t seem enthused by the dollars flying around.

“I think everyone in this room understands that we have a level of revenue disparity in this sport that makes it impossible for some of our markets to compete at some of the numbers we’ve seen,” Manfred said at the Winter Meetings that year. “And, you know, that’s not a positive. It’s like everything else in life, there’s good and bad in it.”

In the end, of course, neither the Mets nor the Padres made the 2023 postseason. This go around, after an offseason dominated by the spending of a different club, the Los Angeles Dodgers, Manfred was more reserved — with the memory of the Mets’ and Padres’ finishes still on his mind. 

“We always watch trends in the market. I think a concern for baseball has always been — since I started in 1988 — disparity on the revenue and the payroll side,” Manfred said Thursday. “Having said that, last year, we were talking about a different team eating up players, or two (teams). Right? And unless my recollection was bad, neither one of them were at that little event we hold in late October and early November.

“It’s the time of year to fret about disparity, is really my answer. We’ll see how it goes. You know, we’ll see how it goes.”

Here are other notes from Manfred’s press conference at the end of the owners’ meetings in Florida this week. 

Expansion waits on media rights

Manfred has long said that when the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays get their stadium deals in place, MLB could seriously consider expanding to 32 teams, up from the current 30. 

Both the A’s and Rays, as of now, appear on their way to new stadiums for 2028, although ground hasn’t been broken at either site. The A’s want to move to Las Vegas in a process that’s been a constant headache, and the Rays have a plan in St. Petersburg, Fla. 

“It kind of echoes the questions about Oakland,” Manfred said when asked about the Rays’ plans for a new stadium. “We’re at the point now where it needs to go — you know, it takes a long time to get in the ground, get a stadium built, the sooner the better from my perspective.”

But, even if those two clubs’ new parks work out as they intend, Manfred has other issues to sort through before he would formally propose expansion to the owners.

“We’re gonna have to get our footing on local media a little better,” Manfred said. “In times of uncertainty, it’s hard to talk about additional change. Having said that, look, I got five (years as commissioner) left, this year and four more. Those teams, even if I push the issue, they won’t be playing by the time I’m done. But I would like the process (moving) along (and locations) hopefully selected, that’s the best I can do for you.”

A new commissioner in 2029?

That comment also seemed to suggest that Manfred, at least as of now, plans for this term as commissioner to be his last. He took over in January 2015, and his current contract, his third as commissioner, brings him to January 2029. Manfred, 65 now, would be 70 at the end of his deal.

Manfred hopes for expedited Orioles sale, OK with price

Manfred said that his office found out about John Angelos’ agreement to sell his 70 percent stake in the Baltimore Orioles to David Rubenstein the same day the public did.

“It’s kind of the baseball way — something happens and almost immediately becomes public,” Manfred joked.

Rubenstein, who’s taking over 40 percent of the team now and the rest of Angelos’ stake later, will become the Orioles’ control person when the first part of the transaction goes through. Manfred doesn’t want a situation where an outgoing and incoming control person are both on the scene for too long.

“I’ve never been comfortable with protracted processes, approval processes,” Manfred said. “Once it’s public that there’s going to be a sale, I think it leaves both … in an awkward spot. So we just want to get it done as quickly as possible.”

Some in the industry believed the valuation of the Orioles and MASN used in the sale, a combined $1.7 billion, was low.

“Would I like it to be higher, because I like high franchise values? Yeah, of course I would,” Manfred said. “But given the various issues related to that club and to the media situation generally, I think it’s a good number.”

As for the future of MASN, which has pitted the Washington Nationals and Orioles against one another for years, Manfred said that “change always produces opportunity.” Rubenstein is acquiring MASN as part of the deal.

Olympic feats

MLB heard a presentation from Casey Wasserman, a leading organizer of the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles, on how the league’s players could participate in those games.

“The pros are just the potential for association between two great brands,” Manfred said. “Not to steal Casey’s thunder, but the opportunity to make a splash and attract the kind of attention that would be associated with … multiple teams, I suspect, of the best players in Major League Baseball, in a short tournament like that — you know, you’ve heard me before, love that combination of nationalism and sport. I’m good on that.

“The cons it’s just, it’s the logistics. Everyday games are tough. They’re tough. And if you look at the calendar, I think it’s complicated by the proximity to what would ordinarily be the All-Star Game.”

Manfred was asked whether he would be OK with a commitment to just one Olympics, rather than multiple.

“The reason I’m hesitating is I have always been of the view that it would be better for us to have a multiple-year commitment,” he said. “I think Casey softened me personally a little bit on that, I don’t know what else to say about it. … I’m not sure it’s quite the driving consideration that it might have been at one point. I’m entitled to change my mind, I guess, occasionally.”

Tom Ricketts, owner of the Chicago Cubs, is the head of the international committee and will spearhead discussions from here, along with a couple of other owners who might also be assigned to the project.

Happy times

Manfred began a small session with reporters with some positive statistics as spring training gets underway.

“I think the overall kind of mood, or overarching mood, of the group over the last few days was positive because of the momentum that we feel coming off 2023,” Manfred said of the owners.

Among the numbers Manfred brought:

• MLB had 26 teams increase their attendance last year.

• Between 2018 and 2022, MLB had five weekends over the period where the league drew 1.5 million in attendance. The league had 11 last year, he said.

• In the 18-35 age group, the percentage of tickets sold is up 10 percent over the last four years.

• The league’s median ticket age has gone to 45 from 51 back in 2019, a “really significant change” Manfred said.

Manfred declined to comment on the status of the Rays’ Wander Franco, who is accused of physical and sexual abuse and commercial sexual exploitation of a minor in the Dominican Republic and whose on-time arrival at spring training is highly doubtful.

“It’s an obviously complicated situation,” Manfred said. “I’d just rather leave it where it is for right now.”

(Top photo of Manfred: Adam Bettcher / Getty Images)