Almost one year to the day Commissioner Rob Manfred took office as the leader of baseball, he celebrated another technological breakthrough when he brought baseball to the Chinese market earlier this month.
The advancement was another feather in the cap for the sport and their long line of tech-savvy innovations. The 57-year-old Manfred made embracing technology and youth outreach one of his top-five priorities when he replaced Bud Selig as the tenth commissioner of baseball last January. Another tall task is to be a torch-bearer for the next generation of fans.
“I think it’s crucial for the future of the game for the sport to cater to the millennial demographic,” Manfred told [a]listdaily in an interview. “Baseball has always been generational. Appropriate use of technology is important to making sure the game gets passed on to the next generation.”
Manfred continued baseball’s decades-long expansion overseas by announcing a three-year strategic partnership between MLB and Le Sports this month to live stream 125 games a season in China, Hong Kong and Macau.
The first mass-market MLB media agreement in China adds another layer to a lasting global foundation Manfred is building. The marketing move should be a big boon for China as they make millions of dollars, and new fans. It’ll also help the country develop a future pool of pros, and perhaps push a flurry of Asian-born players stateside much like Japan and South Korea have done since the mid-90s. It’s already gotten off to a promising start. Last year the Baltimore Orioles signed 19-year-old Xu “Itchy” Guiyuan, making him the first player from one of MLB’s China Development Centers to sign a pro contract.
Manfred, a Harvard Law School graduate, knows that globalizing the game will help unearth the next great talent from borders outside the United States. Adopting to technology – a concept the sport has notoriously been criticized for not fully embracing – only puts that process on the fast track.
MLB Advanced Media, the league’s digital company, is no stranger to success in the tech arena – they even have rights to NHL’s digital platforms. At the conclusion of the 2015 season, MLB.TV enjoyed a 20-to-25 percent growth in the number of subscribers for its Internet and mobile services, bringing the total to about 3.5 million, per the L.A. Times. Another way baseball is trying to appeal to its stats-starved, fantasy-playing youth is through sabermetrics. MLB made media waves last season with the debut of Statcast, a state-of-the-art advanced metrics tracking technology. The “At Bat” app is also must-have for any fan.
“Baseball is a game of history and tradition. Things like the Hall of Fame are important milestones in our annual calendar. We never want to lose track of what has been accomplished by great players,” Manfred continued. “On the other hand, we have a great generation of young players like Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper, to name just a couple. It’s really important for us to focus on those young players and technology as we try and appeal to younger fans.”
Manfred’s mission remains to grow the game both on an international and domestic level. In November, he announced a three-year agreement with FOX that will allow fans in the U.S. to watch live in-market streaming on any mobile device in 2016. The deal covers only the 15 markets in which FOX is the regional sports network.
“We’re working with the other distributors and expect to have agreements to allow in-market streaming with those distributors as well,” Manfred said.
The commissioner didn’t comment on a recent court filing that contests some of MLB’s broadcasting practices under antitrust law, but according to the nine-page document, it appears that MLB will be following in the footsteps of the NBA and NHL by offering a single-team streaming option for 2016.
MLB became the first sports league to offer live-streamed games in 2003.
By Opening Day, fans will be enjoying more tech firsts.
Follow Manouk Akopyan on Twitter @Manouk_Akopyan.