Live From CES: MLB’s Manfred, NBA’s Silver Discuss Technology’s Growing Impact on Sports

Turner Sports, along with event sponsors NextVR and Qualcomm, powered the CES Sports Business Forum, an event highlighted by a discussion between Turner Sports lead play-by-play announcer Ernie Johnson, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. The topic? Technology and how it is changing their sports and the rest of the sports industry.

Turner Sport's announcer Ernie Johnson (left) with MLB Commission Rob Manfred (center) and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discussed the sports industry during a panel at CES.

Turner Sports announcer Ernie Johnson (left), MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred (center), and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver discussed the sports industry during a panel at CES.

Manfred said he has been surprised at how quickly technology is changing the business of Major League Baseball, not the least being the fast pace of change enabled by MLBAM.

“[Former Commissioner] Bud Selig’s decision to consolidate the Internet rights of MLB and start MLBAM did two huge things for us,” Manfred explained. “It separated the business from baseball so we can provide services to a number of other companies, but, most important, one of the challenges our game faces is reaching out to younger fans.”

That’s where the work MLBAM has put in on products like MLB At Bat has made a difference. Although MLB TV viewership skews older (“an opportunity,” said Manfred, “as they have big buying power”), the average age of the At Bat app user is less than 30.

“And it’s opened 8 million times a day,” he added, “which are good numbers for us.”

Silver said that the technology on display at CES demonstrates the importance of sports content. The evolution of the screens, whether large screens or tablets and phones, illustrates the evolution of how fans watch sports.

“The notion that sports would have an important seat at a show like CES was unexpected to me,” he said. But the quality of handheld devices and the transition to HD streaming have changed the game not only for fans but also for Silver himself.

“If I have a tablet in front of me, I will reach for that rather than the TV remote because the quality is fantastic and the navigation is much easier than through cable or satellite,” he explained. “Five years ago, I would not have predicted that the public Internet would get to the point where the quality is this good.”

Additional cameras and mics are being used to bring fans closer to the game, but, Silver noted, even without them in an actual broadcast, players and coaches need to stay alert because of the quality of phones to record audio and video.

“Anything you say or do may get picked up, and, even if we don’t change any of the rules [regarding a broadcast], the proximity of the fans to players courtside means they can hold up their phones and pick up everything,” he pointed out. “We all have to be aware that we are in this new world.”

Manfred added that MLB has struggled through the years dealing with players-association issues as well as delays on mics but, as with the NBA, debates over those issues are almost irrelevant. “The more dangerous form of access is the fans, and we can’t control that.”

The use of instant replay grew out of something else the league cannot control: the ability of broadcasters to replay angles that would show that an umpire got a call wrong.

“Years ago,” Manfred explained, “the umpires wanted no part of instant replay, but they realized that broadcasts would embarrass them so they eventually thought, if you can’t beat them, join them.”

That viewing experience at home that led to the instant-replay changes continues to improve and begs the question of whether a great home viewing experience will stop fans from coming to the game. Silver, however, is not concerned: NBA season-ticket sales are at an all-time high, and the past three years have seen new league-wide attendance records each year.

“As people live virtual lives, they crave the ability to be around people, and, in a way, these events are a town hall of sorts,” he said. “The sports bonds that people have are strong, and the tribalism has only gotten stronger.”

Said Manfred, “We sell 75 million tickets for MLB games and another 42 million tickets for minor-league baseball. That is 110 million people who are going to the ballparks for the social aspect. And the pace and flow of our game is different, so we have to sell to families and groups. For those fans, the social aspect will be important.”

Those families and groups no doubt also take advantage of social media to keep in touch, discuss a sports event, and even celebrate a victory or console each other during a loss. The question facing leagues, teams, and even players is, how do they enter those social-media conversations at the ballpark or arena?

“We have a traditions-bound game, and that is a good thing,” said Manfred. “But we saw last September the beginning of a change: we allowed tablets to be in the dugout. And there will be a continuing evolution as the technology creeps closer to the field. At the Home Run Derby and All-Star Game, we do ask players to tweet and engage in social media. But tweeting from the bench during a game is something that I don’t think can happen.”

Of course, there is another controversial aspect of the business that has created a social phenomenon: daily-fantasy-sports sites like Fan Duel and Draft Kings.

“Daily fantasy is another form of fan engagement, and we feel it should be regulated but it is also a healthy form of engagement,” said Silver. “Right now, attorney generals are interpreting statutes and trying to understand if it is a game of skill or gambling. But that belies the underlying issue, which is whether it should be legal. Forty-four states have lotteries, and those are not a game of skill, so I hope we can get past the policy issue of if it is a sin.”

Manfred agreed that it is a significant form of engagement but added, “It’s important that the industry be transparent and have the appropriate regulations.”