Financial numbers suggest MLB faces opportunity, not crisis

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. (Nati Harnik/AP)

I’ve covered Major League Baseball long enough that I know a crisis when I see it and what is ailing the sport at this time isn’t a crisis as much as an opportunity.

I mean, Philadelphia Phillies owner John Middleton says publicly his team might be “a little stupid” about all the money it will spend and commissioner Rob Manfred says nada. His predecessor, Bud Selig – who delayed a vote on the sale of the Toronto Blue Jays because he was enraged at the contract they gave to re-sign Carlos Delgado – would have taken Middleton out to the verbal woodshed.

The true measure of a sport’s financial health isn’t competitive balance or the irrelevant score-keeping of television ratings or attendance. It’s franchise value, specifically how much folks are willing to pay to join the club, and network TV contracts, specifically how much folks are willing to pay to show your product. MLB is fine in that regard. Better than ever, as reflected by the new seven-year, $5.1-billion deal it signed with Fox last week. The games take too long, they start too late, not enough happens, not as many people watch … but baseball gets a 36 per cent increase from Fox, a wee portion of which will go to Manfred’s new five-year extension.

But that doesn’t mean the game ought to overlook concerns from some of its stakeholders. Players once again saw their share of overall revenue diminish and 30-something free agents are lowering their sights and at some point the internal pressure on the players association will ratchet up. I had two long-serving, smart veteran players and one big-time player agent tell me this year that MLBPA chief Tony Clark will be lucky to finish out 2019. The cheering among ownership will be kept down to a dull roar, because savvy owners realize that one of the underpinnings to baseball’s enviable labour peace has been a sound, well-run and united players association.

The game needs tweaking. That’s obvious even to those of us who are willing to turn over three and a half hours to watch a nine-inning game. Recognizing common cause was a strength of Manfred as a chief labour negotiator and now’s the time to do something more than simply institute a pitch clock or put draconian limits on pitching changes, which interferes unnecessarily with the strategy that separates baseball from sports that have less of a sense of self.

Yes, it would be nice to have more balls in play and restore a balance to three-outcome at-bats but baseball will never be a game of flow like hockey or basketball. It is an inherently negative sport; the defence has possession of the ball and the first act is a pitcher trying to keep the ball out of play or at least prevent contact. And so let’s start with defence: forget eliminating or restricting shifts but, as one MLB Network panel discussed last week, what about requiring a shifted infielder to keep both feet on the dirt, and negate the four-man outfield? Every sport tinkers with rules to improve scoring and this might be a start.

I would love to see Manfred use the bully pulpit of the commissioner’s office to get players, former players, general managers, managers, TV executives – but not owners – together on a committee to do a deeper dive into this. While they’re at it, look at re-alignment, the universal institution of the designated hitter, expanded playoffs and if necessary a shorter spring training and regular season. I like the idea of cutting down the time between innings to 90 seconds and restricting warmup pitches. Worried that will cut into commercial spots? Follow Formula 1 or soccer and smaller-sized placements while play is commencing. Split-screens. Whatever. And who knows? Working together in a spirit of study might strengthen shared bonds. Never a bad thing; never a bad time to do it.

Each week, Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt tackle the most impactful stories in the world of sports and their intersection with popular culture. Come for the sports; stay for the storytelling and cigars.

NOW TWEET THIS

In which we request an APB on the Sabres … wonder if the Celtics are really all that … spin some stuff on the newest Jay … wonder whether we might see an As-Stro Show (see what I did there?).

• What the hell have the hockey gods done with the Sabres? Five in a row for the first time since March, 2012? Jason Pominville and Kyle Okposo with two of the 11 go-ahead goals scored in the NHL in the final two minutes of the third? #mindblowing

• As of Saturday, the Celtics took the most open shots in the NBA with the second-worst shooting percentage. Head coach Brad Stevens benched everybody in the fourth quarter the game after they’d beaten the Raps. Danny Ainge got work to do. #notbuying

• Understandable that interviewing Condoleezza Rice about the Browns mess would work leatherheads into a lather. She’s not anally retentive enough to be an NFL coach, but I’d want her input as long as it didn’t involve sending in the troops. #howdthatworkout?

• The Raps are 4-0 in the second game of back-to-backs ahead of Tuesday-Wednesday’s games against the Magic and Hawks. They were 9-5 in those situations in 2017-18. #depth

• Newly acquired Jays pitcher Trent Thornton graded out as having the best control in the triple-A Pacific Coast League in Baseball America’s mid-season survey. He has monster spin-rate. #nicepickup

• You know what intrigues me: how the Jays and Astros apparently like each other’s players, and how the Astros need pitching and would probably love to marry Marcus Stroman’s ability to manipulate the ball with their technology. #justsaying

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

• My Sportsnet colleague John Shannon circulates at the highest levels, so I’ll take as gospel that had Calgary’s Olympic plebiscite passed, the 5,000-seat arena was going to serve as a jumping off point for the Saddledome’s replacement. #baitandswitch

Speaking of which …

THE ENDGAME

So, so many awful takes out there about the clear message Calgary voters sent to their city council last week when they voted against pursuing the 2026 Winter Olympics bid. Most remarkable was the self-loathing suggesting that somehow the city had “lost its soul” or “lost its Olympic spirit” or ability to dream big. Let’s leave aside the idea that it’s tough to dream big when you can’t dream about the next mortgage payment, or that the average schmo would have a hard time picking sides in a battle of elites pitting the veggie-friendly, book-reading, lefty intellectuals against the beef-eating, idle rich searching for something to do with their spare time and your money.

The issue wasn’t and isn’t with the people of Calgary. It’s with the IOC, who are still paying for decades of brand damage brought on by backroom deals and opaque morals. My guess is as the number of interested cities die on the vine and smart politicians turn the tables and the burden of proof on the IOC, we’re moving toward rotating permanent sites – winter and summer spots in North America, Europe and Asia; summer permanent sites in Africa, Asia and South America. And you know what? I’m OK with that, as long as we are grown up enough as a sporting country to realize funding Olympic athletes is no less a virtuous ideal just because we won’t likely host another Olympics in our lifetime.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan.

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