Major League Baseball (MLB) commissioner Rob Manfred has admitted that the MLB is lagging behind other major professional sports leagues in the United States in regards to esports, saying: “It has kind of been a weak spot for us.”
The NBA, NFL, NHL and MLS have organised competitive tournaments based on video games simulating their respective sports. MLB, however, has only dipped its toes in this field so far, with organised Home Run Derby VR tournaments at the All-Star Game and Little League World Series.
Looking to engage a younger audience, Manfred said MLB will make a further entry into esports this year.
“Strategically, we see esports has kind of been a weak spot for us,” the MLB commissioner said. “It is a real priority for us going forward. It is tough to say more than this but I’m pretty confident that in 2019 we will have a nice announcement in that space in terms of platform-based games.”
He added: “The Fifa [EA Sports] game is so popular that it actually affected the way fandom developed in MLS as opposed to European soccer – really an interesting dynamic and one that you have to pay a lot of attention to.”
MLB remains in the running to buy 21 of the 22 regional sports networks that Disney must divest as part of its $71.3bn (€63bn) purchase of Fox’s entertainment assets. Speaking at the SportTechie State of the Industry 2019 conference at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Manfred admitted that the league has a limit on the price it is willing to pay for them.
“We’re a roughly $10bn industry and the going valuations out there [for the RSNs] are in excess of that $10bn number and when you take those two fundamentals into account, we have to be value-sensitive,” he said.
MLB recently asked Nevada, and other states, to prohibit gambling on spring training games, arguing that wagers on these matches carry “heightened security risks” and are “more vulnerable to manipulation” because teams are focused on getting players ready for the season, not on winning. The Nevada Gaming Control Board rejected the request.
Manfred told SportBusiness: “I think it’s a fairness and integrity thing. Mostly people are interested in betting on competitive events – these are training events and you don’t know exactly whether the training motivation or the competitive motivation is the driving one.
“We give them [betting operators] 2,430 games a year that they can bet on and it just seems to us to make more sense to focus on ones where wins and losses actually matter.”
MLB has introduced 20-second pitch clocks in spring training this year in order to help speed up the pace of play. According to ESPN, however, the league is prepared to eliminate their implementation in league games until at least 2022, in order to broker a wide-ranging proposal with the MLB Players Association.
This week it was announced that MLB’s Official Sports Betting Partner, MGM Resorts International, will be the title sponsor of the Seattle Mariners-Oakland A’s season-opening series on March 20-21 in Tokyo.
Manfred said: “It’s a big deal for us, it’s a very important part of our international effort and it’s also an important part of their international effort so there is a lot of alignment there.”