DUNEDIN, Fla. — As baseball prepares for a possible local broadcasting crisis, Commissioner Rob Manfred sees an opportunity.
Manfred said Thursday that Major League Baseball can produce games digitally in conjunction with MLB.TV if Bally Sports regional networks are no longer broadcasting them. In fact, he said this is a chance to address the game blackouts that inspire so much anger among fans.
Sinclair Broadcast Group’s
Diamond Sports Group, the parent company of 19 Bally Sports networks, skipped about $140 million in interest payments due Wednesday, starting a 30-day grace period that could be the prelude to a bankruptcy filing.
“I don’t relish any of this,” Manfred said at a spring training media day. “I think it’s necessary to have a centrally based solution to what’s a really serious problem and move us forward to our next stage of delivering games to fans, delivering them where they want to watch them, and without the kind of blackouts that we’ve had in the old model.”
Manfred acknowledged some teams could be at risk of losing revenue, depending on the status of their regional sports networks, and that MLB is prepared to help.
“You know, we have a pretty good balance sheet in central baseball,” he said. “I think it’s safe to assume that we will provide every support that we possibly can to those clubs that are at risk.”
Manfred said MLB’s willingness to step in aggressively if the Bally networks can no longer broadcast is driven partly by the fact that it would give baseball a chance to fix blackout issues. Currently, a game might be unavailable digitally in the market of the competing teams if a RSN has exclusive rights in that area.
If a regional network like Bally is no longer broadcasting, Manfred said the games can be offered digitally or perhaps within a cable bundle.
“From a fan’s perspective, while it may not be whatever channel is your traditional RSN, if you think about it from a reach perspective, the games being available digitally, in-market is something fans have been screaming for for years,” he said.
“I hope we get to the point where on the digital side, when you go to MLB.TV, you can buy whatever the heck you want, right?” Manfred added. “I think what has happened among ownership is they have realized that as we go more digital, there is an opportunity for us to become a more national product. So that people aren’t so wedded to their individual local markets.”
Manfred also discussed the rules changes for this year, which include a pitch clock and restrictions on defensive shifts. He said change always includes some risk, but long-term benefits make this adjustment period worthwhile.
He said MLB will test both a fully automated balls and strikes system and a challenge system at Triple-A this year Under the challenge system, an umpire’s decision can be appealed to the computer’s decision. Each will be used three days per week — no Monday games are scheduled at Triple-A.
“To do one at Triple-A and not do the other didn’t seem like a good test to us in terms of really figuring out which might be the best system at the big league level,” Manfred said.
When asked about payroll disparities between teams, Manfred said a more national product can produce more centrally shared revenue and reduce revenue disparity.
He said he remains open to solutions like a payroll floor, but the current labor contract runs through the 2026 season.