Bud Selig, who is stepping down after this season, has been either acting commissioner or commissioner of baseball since 1992. The new commissioner will be Rob Manfred, an MLB insider of many years. Selig is the longest-serving commissioner of baseball since the game's first commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who served from 1920-1944.
When Selig took over as acting commissioner, there were 26 big league teams, of which four made the post-season. Steroids were rarely used and never discussed. Players from different leagues only played against each other in the All-Star Game, spring training and the World Series. Big league players from Asia were extremely rare and there was no global stage where the best players from all over the world could represent their countries on the field. Perhaps most significantly, very few people had even heard of the internet.
Today, big league baseball looks very different. There are 30 teams, of which fully a third make the post-season in one form or another. The World Baseball Classic has been a moderate success and continues to grow. The steroid scandal erupted, was handled poorly and has been declared over, even though it continues to plague things like Hall of Fame voting. In short, the game has changed dramatically during Selig's tenure.
One of the most significant changes is that today baseball is something that is consumed substantially over the internet. Many fans no longer read box scores in print each morning, but look at video highlights on their phone or tablet. Beat writers are no longer guardians of information about baseball as the internet has now made an enormous amount of baseball writing available to fans. Many fans no longer watch baseball on television, preferring MLB's apps that allow them to watch, listen to or monitor whatever games they want whenever they want, with some restrictions. Baseball is not unusual in that it has been changed by the internet, but it has been relatively good at using the internet to make the game more accessible and enjoyable for many.
Many of these changes were controversial primarily because they weakened the tradition of a game that has always had a complex relationship with its own history. Taken as a whole, Selig's tenure was a time when baseball stopped being a largely unchanging and uniquely American pastime. Instead it has become a rapidly evolving and adapting global enterprise. Whether this is good or bad is a subjective issue that each fan can determine individually.
Baseball's next commissioner will be faced with a different set of challenges. Part of these challenges will be managing the evolutions initially set in motion during the Selig era. It is possible that there will be further efforts to expand the post-season, potentially leading to discussions of reducing the number of regular-season games. Similarly, proposals to further internationalize the game such as playing games in Europe, or eventually adding an expansion team, or teams, outside the US will be considered as well.
The more difficult issues facing the new commissioner will be to ensure that baseball continues to generate the profits it has produced in recent years in an environment where the process of turning content into revenue is changing and becoming more difficult. Rising attendance throughout most of the Selig years has been a source of revenue for MLB and the teams themselves. That is unlikely to change in the near future, but the other major sources of revenue, notably cable television contracts are different.
The revenue, currently almost $1.5 billion a year, generated by MLB's cable television contracts, is one of the foundations on which baseball's affluence is built. This is does not include the television contracts each team has for its local area. The latter is hard to measure, but totals several hundred million dollars as well. Given how quickly media is changing, television contracts may be a shaky foundation for MLB. People, particularly younger people, watch less television every years. The current model of a big cable package that gives consumers access to many stations, including many they don't want is under assault already.
MLB has tried to make up for some of this by selling its MLB.TV product to fans. This gives fans access to every game during the season and can be viewed on a television, table or phone. Currently, this product blacks out games in the local market so, for example in New York consumers of MLB.TV cannot see Yankee, Mets or nationally televised games. Until that changes, MLB.TV will have a limited appeal. That problem aside, paying $130 for access to every game is a great value for the serious fan, but less useful for the casual fan.
Selig's successor will have a few years to solve this problem, but it is something that cannot be ignored. The enormous television contract under which baseball operates now is not likely to be renewed as such in 2020. Figuring out a way to replace that revenue and continue to adjust to the new media world, rather than determining ways to make the game more exciting or figure out the best post-season formula, will be the criteria by which the next commissioner will be judged.