Why Rob Manfred and MLB might like a neutral site World Series

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The 2020 World Series was held at the neutral site of Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, because, as you might have heard, we are in the middle of a pandemic. The neutral site Fall Classic was a way to bubble the teams and keep travel from being necessary, but it was apparently also a potential trial balloon for MLB commissioner Rob Manfred.

Manfred spoke to the Sports Business Journal about the possibility of future exploration of the neutral site World Series space:

“You should always think about innovation,” Manfred told THE DAILY. “I wouldn’t say a neutral-site World Series is completely off the table. There were things that we saw in Texas that were advantages for us. You can plan. You can take out travel. You can pick sites that eliminate weather problems. Those are all things worthy of conversation and discussion. I think the big (weight) on the scale in favor of our traditional format, the thing that really matters at the end of the day, are fans in home markets.”

The thing about innovation is that focusing on it too much for its own sake also leads to pointless changes and creations that no one wants or needs. This can work as a veiled critique of everything Silicon Valley stands for and does, or it can be applied to, say, making the World Series a neutral site event all the time instead of just when coronavirus is ravaging the country

Do I think that we’ll end up with a Superbowl-esque World Series every year? Probably not! Manfred says a lot of things to gauge the reaction of them, and then attempts to move forward with the things he thinks he can get away with or that are worth MLB’s time regardless of fan reaction. He can say that what matters “at the end of the day, are fans,” but that’s just a thing his programming requires him to say to give off the appearance of emotion. What matters to Manfred, and the MLB owners, is whether an idea will generate revenue for them. Enough revenue to offset whatever the fans in their home markets might care about.

I have a couple of ideas of ways the owners might be convinced that moving the World Series to a neutral location would benefit them financially, even when it would mean the owners whose teams are in the World Series would lose the home field advantage ability to jack up the prices of parking and tickets.

The first is, admittedly, a bit unrealistic, but I want to address it since I tweeted about it earlier in the week while trying to suss out why MLB would even consider this plan. What if the league forced cities to bid on the World Series, like it was the Olympics? I could see this being bandied about in an owners’ meeting as a way to further drain cities of tax revenue, but as far as being actually implemented, I doubt even MLB’s owners would seriously consider the idea. Baseball is popular, sure, but it’s not popular enough to hold the World Series ransom like that. You would need cities to be absolutely on board with this plan, and only so many of them would likely be into it at a time, which would mean less competitive bidding, which in turn would mean MLB probably isn’t getting enough out of this, financially, to justify the ire they would draw from the fans the sport does have. They love their more passive revenues for a reason, because they’re divorced from whether people actually actively care about the sport.

What if MLB could be less open about their draining of public funds, though, and more subtle about how they were using them to get rich? If a neutral site World Series was used as a far more powerful version of a plan already in use, to a degree, to host the annual All-Star Game? That’s right, baby, what if MLB could use the allure of hosting a World Series to help convince cities that it was time that their team gets a brand new, publicly financed stadium?

Stadiums play a central role in the ever-upward franchise valuation feedback loop, and we’re seeing new ones pop up in situations where it’s unclear exactly why a new stadium would fall into the realm of “need” instead of “want.” Globe Life Field, for instance: yeah, I know it’s hot in Arlington, Rangers fans, but the stadium it’s replacing is only as old as the three-division format of MLB. That thing opened in 1994, and it has already been replaced. The same goes with Atlanta’s Turner Field, which was opened for baseball in 1997 and replaced in 2016, and Arizona’s Chase Field, which opened in 1998 and which MLB would love to have replaced, with the D-Backs going so far as to avoid making repairs on the stadium so they could say it was falling apart.

It’s not that a new stadium is never necessary at all, but they are far less necessary in terms of comfortably hosting a professional baseball game than MLB and its teams would lead you to believe. I’ve been to Globe Life Park, the previous Rangers’ home, a couple of times — and on hot days, too. It remains a pretty cool baseball stadium, with wide concourses and an easily navigable setup. It’s nearly 30 years old now, though, so just like rich men tend to do with their wives as they approach that age, it was apparently time to invest in a newer model.

MLB would surely love it if they could add the wrinkle of “a new stadium means we wouldn’t be embarrassed to have your city host a World Series” to the list of things to leverage against local politicians. I’d like to think it wouldn’t work, too, but given the number of publicly financed ballparks around, and how a city actually standing up to their sports teams is a rarity in the news cycle, well. Here we are.

Again, I don’t think MLB is actually going to go down this route. But, should they decide to investigate further into this neutral site World Series idea, this would probably be their reason for doing so. New ballparks bring an increase in franchise value, and you’d be forgiven for believing that increasing franchise value is the entire point of the league. Anything that gives them a chance to up that value is worth it in their minds, even if it’s just one component in a much larger system.

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