Rob Manfred is letting gambling decide MLB’s direction

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There is some concern out there that, because Rob Manfred seems intent on ruining the game of baseball as you know it, seven-inning games are going to eventually be the norm instead of what allows for regularly scheduled doubleheaders while MLB navigates a pandemic. With the modified extra innings rules, the minor leagues being used as a laboratory for pace of play and even more extra innings quirks and so on, it’s no wonder people feel like this about Manfred and his plans. Worry not, though: we probably won’t lose nine-inning games, because it would make the gamblers unhappy.

That’s right! The gamblers. Calling the intrusion of gambling on Major League Baseball “creeping” does not do what’s happening enough hasty justice—it’s been less subtle than that— but it’s still fitting since gambling’s influence is not becoming all-encompassing all at once. It is there, obvious to anyone who has seen the ways in which it has been introduced into even league broadcasts, but now we also have Manfred bringing it up in an interview with Sportico.

As tweeted by Bill Shaikin:

That’s right, the commissioner of another league, the NBA, told Manfred to cut the shit with incessant pace of play talk, because there was a way to extract more money from baseball’s lengthy format and constant breaks. And Manfred, as a guy who really only speaks this one business-y language, understood that far more than years of people saying, “hey, this sucks” about whatever initiatives he was going on and on about.

Craig Goldstein went into detail on Manfred’s lack of feel on this and his inability to understand things that aren’t directly tied to increasing profits, and you should read the whole thing, but I want to pull out this one paragraph for our purposes today:

And that couldn’t be more evident in the quote above to Sportico—a publication and medium devoted to the business of sports. This is where Manfred operates and it is where he is most comfortable. It’s why the way to get him to rethink whether pace of play is an issue is to point out that a slower game might be a more profitable one, even though he’s spent years arguing the opposite. It’s also because the business of sport is where he’s best. Make someone a ton of money and they’ll overlook a lot of things, be it referring to the World Series trophy as a “piece of metal,” or snidely congratulating a reporter on doing their job. While Manfred has shown a mind for money, he’s either never been able to differentiate between what’s “good for business” broadly speaking and what is “extracting every last penny” in the short term, or he’s always been willing to sacrifice the former for the latter. If the numbers were crunched and it was determined that adding four seconds between pitches enabled enough bets to make some money, you can bet (ha ha ha) Manfred would go for it. It’s the kind of bloodless dedication to optimization that earned sabermetricians a generation’s ire, except that the victories are buried in hidden income statements.

“Fan engagement” is not what Manfred is after. “Fan engagement” might have been what he was after when he was discussing pace of play, which was more of an earnest attempt to speed up MLB’s version of baseball in the hopes it got those kids with their iPhones to pay attention to grandpa’s favorite sport. And, to defend Manfred on that point—see, I’m capable of it when warranted, which is rare—MLB’s fan base is the oldest among the major sports, with nowhere near the kind of youth interest of say, the NBA, which means that when MLB’s fans die off, if the league has not by that point figured out a way to recruit new, younger, and living ones, they have to hope there is some other way for them to generate a ton of money to keep going the way they’ve been going for well over a century now.

So, enter sports betting. Even if few enough young people in America enjoy baseball that the average age of a television-viewing MLB fan is closer to retirement and death than their college years and birth, gamblers don’t need to be fans of a sport to bet on it. And if partnerships with sites like DraftKings and FanDuel keep up, if relationships with the likes of gambling tycoons MGM continue to persist or new ones form, MLB is going to find themselves with a revenue stream they didn’t used to rely on, but now have to. And decisions will be made that ensure those relationships persist. So, you won’t see seven-inning games become the norm, since they would be risking a lot more than losing some ad revenue by shortening games. You aren’t going to see the season meaningfully shortened, because if fewer innings means fewer opportunities for betting, then imagine how much of a hit fewer games would mean for the same.

Will it mean a worse baseball product? That, I’m not sure: presentation-wise, sure, since gambling will inevitably be synonymous with the league and an intricate part of its broadcast that cannot be untangled from it. Which might, in turn, push away younger fans who are even less interested in compulsive gambling than they are men in pajamas taking 30 seconds in between pitches. But as for what MLB can do to worsen their version of the game itself, in order to appease gamblers? That’s a little more unclear, other than that it seems like any promise the pace of play initiatives had might be getting tossed out the window since there is gamblers’ money to be made. Regardless, it’s worth keeping an eye on: at some point, MLB will push a little too far in their quest to extract every cent they can, and catering to gamblers might just be how it happens.