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Rob Manfred talks about RSN difficulties, the balanced schedule, rule changes and more

Cactus League Media Day helps kick off the spring baseball season.

Al Yellon

PHOENIX, Arizona — After an absence of a couple of years due to the pandemic and MLB’s lockout, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, held a news conference to kick off the Cactus League season. It was held at the Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix.

Manfred echoed the presentation I attended Tuesday in Scottsdale by saying that he feels the sport is in the best shape it’s been in, in a long time, and noted that this is the first “normal” Spring Training in four years. This is all a good thing. He then touched on a number of important topics he was asked about by reporters at the presser.

First, he was asked about the balanced schedule and talked about how some teams felt it would be better to have more different clubs visit rather than have more divisional games. Manfred said, “What we hear from clubs is that it would help us with attendance and appeal to our fans to have a little more variety.” My feeling is, as it has been throughout, that while this might be true for some teams, for the Cubs I’d say they’d probably draw better with more games against the Cardinals and Brewers instead of having those series replaced by games against, say, the Mariners and Royals. Manfred did note: “The tradeoff is more travel.”

So it would not surprise me if they might tweak this type of schedule after it’s in effect for a year or two.

I asked Manfred whether he was concerned about a schedule like the Cubs’ in April, where they play 16 of their first 25 games at home and 13 of those games are against teams from the West divisions. He gave a noncommittal answer, simply noting that “these things will be worked out” in case of bad weather forcing postponements which could result in difficulties rescheduling games, or playing in less-than-optimal conditions.

The answer appears to be: Everyone start wishing now for the warmest, driest April in Chicago history!

One of the biggest topics, on which multiple questions were asked of Manfred, was the announcement today that Diamond Sports, which runs a number of regional sports networks that carry MLB teams’ games, had skipped a $140 million interest payment today. Details:

Manfred said, “No matter what happens with Diamond, we want to make sure the games are available.” Pressed further on what that might mean if Diamond was unable to broadcast games at all, Manfred said that it’s MLB’s expectation that Diamond would pay the clubs and continue as they have been, but if not: “We’ve been really clear that if Diamond doesn’t pay, for every single broadcast agreement, that creates a termination right.” The rights would thus revert to the clubs, and Manfred added, “If MLB stepped in, we would produce the games, using MLB Network, and then go directly to distributors like Comcast or Charter. and make an agreement to have those games distributed.” This doesn’t affect Cubs games, as Marquee Sports Network isn’t part of the Diamond deal, but that might mean for fans of teams affected, they’d eliminate the middleman and thus any blackouts involved. Manfred mentioned an option to buy an in-market streaming package in this case.

Manfred adedd, “It’s really important for the game to preserve the economics in the remaining RSN/cable bundle while developing a digital alternative that has more flexibility” and added, “The one word that says what baseball needs is reach. We need to deliver product to fans who want to watch, on platforms that they customarily use, at a realistic price.” The latter was in response to a question about blackouts, which are the bane of most fans’ existence. I remember asking Manfred about blackouts back in 2016, at one of the first of these media days I attended, and his response included: “I hate blackouts.”

Whether you like or dislike Rob Manfred, I believe him on that. The issue, of course, has been the long-term RSN contracts that have used our favorite map:

It takes a while to unwind these sorts of deals. But with the Diamond bankruptcy looming and other sports rapidly moving events to streaming, I do believe we are fairly close to having what Manfred was talking about: An affordable way for fans to stream any game they want, no matter where they are located. Manfred called that “our No. 1 priority.”

It should be noted that in addition to Diamond Sports missing this $140 million payment, this Sportico article notes that three other RSN’s, AT&T SportsNet channels that cover the Rockies, Pirates and Astros made “lighter-than-expected” payments to their teams this week.

So this is a developing story that’s worth watching.

Then Manfred was asked about the Athletics’ stadium situation by John Shea, a Bay Area writer. He noted that everyone acknowledges that the A’s need a new stadium. But the very first words in his answer were, “The focus since December has been on Las Vegas.” That appeared to surprise Shea, as well as others in the room, and Manfred walked it back a bit by saying that “there are still conversations going on between the A’s and the city,” meaning Oakland, and that he’s had several conversations with A’s owner John Fisher, but reading between the lines — it appears to me that if Las Vegas works out the “funding issues” that Manfred mentioned, the A’s might wind up heading there. Manfred was asked if it’s the A’s preference is to stay in Oakland, and he danced around the question, saying “Mr. Fisher wants to make the best deal possible for the future of the A’s whether it’s in Oakland or Las Vegas.” So stay tuned.

Manfred was asked about the possibility of an ABS (automatic ball-strike, or “robot ump” system) coming to the major leagues and how that would affect catchers who make it their specialty to be good at framing. He danced around this one, too, calling the idea of the ABS system “something we’re still evaluating” and just saying it “affects a subset of players.”

About the rule changes coming to MLB this year, Manfred said, “A lot of the players like the rule changes,” although he noted that there were still differences on whether things like the pitch clock would have a greater effect on hitters or pitchers. He said he thought one of the most important things in the latest CBA was to have “this ongoing committee” — referring to the Competition Committee — where there’s an ongoing dialogue with players about possible upcoming changes.

If you have not watched the videos I posted yesterday about the pitch clock, shift restrictions and larger bases, I suggest you do that. Those are the changes you’ll notice the most about the game as it’s played in 2023 and beyond.

Those were the most important topics touched on by Manfred in a presser that lasted about 30 minutes, and I do think these are among the most significant issues and things about Major League Baseball that you’ll find as the season begins and continues.

Now let’s play ball!