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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred discusses collusion investigation, Las Vegas expansion, crypto crash after owners meetings

MLB’s commissioner fielded questions on a handful of topics, including the future of streaming rights.

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MLB commissioner Rob Manfred does not believe the Mets and Yankees colluded with each other on free-agent discussions. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred does not believe the Mets and Yankees colluded with each other on free-agent discussions. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred addressed a small group of media Thursday afternoon in New York City following the conclusion of owners meetings this week.

He announced that the Texas Rangers will host the 2024 All-Star Game at Globe Life Field in Arlington and the Philadelphia Phillies will host the 2026 game to honor the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. (The 2025 All-Star location is yet undecided.) Beyond that, here’s what he had to say on a range of topics:

Investigation into collusion between the Mets and Yankees

On Nov. 3 SNY reported that, according to Mets sources, the Mets would not make a run at Aaron Judge in free agency this offseason because owners Steven Cohen and Hal Steinbrenner have a “mutually respectful relationship, and do not expect to upend that with a high-profile bidding war.” The Athletic reported Wednesday that those comments had incited an investigation by MLB into whether they constitute collusion to suppress Judge’s market.

Manfred initially demurred, citing his lack of involvement in the investigation, but when pressed on how fraught accusations of collusion are — especially so close to an contentious labor fight — he offered unequivocal assurance that there had been no impropriety.

“I’m absolutely confident that the clubs behaved in a way that was consistent with the agreement. You know, this was based on a newspaper report,” he said. “We will put ourselves in a position to demonstrate credibly to the MLBPA that this is not an issue. I’m sure that’s going to be the outcome.”

Fallout from FTX declaring bankruptcy after signing a partnership with MLB

In June 2021, MLB announced that it had forged “the first-ever partnership between a professional sports league and a cryptocurrency exchange” with FTX. Beginning with the 2021 All-Star Game, FTX became the first sponsorship company to advertise on umpire uniforms. The agreement also granted FTX worldwide marketing rights utilizing MLB logos, and through an agreement with the MLBPA, allowed FTX to use player highlights in their content creation.

“This is an incredibly exciting announcement for everyone in Major League Baseball as we partner with a global leader in the early stages of their unbelievable growth,” MLB chief revenue officer Noah Garden said in the news release at the time.

Last week, FTX declared bankruptcy and CEO Sam Bankman-Fried resigned amid investigations by state and federal authorities. There are concerns of specific wrongdoing — leveraging customers’ investments to fund ventures of another company FTX had a relationship with — but the whole incident highlights the inherent lack of regulation in the cryptocurrency space.

“Obviously, the FTX development was a little jarring,” Manfred said Thursday.

Asked about whether this would give MLB pause partnering with cryptocurrency companies going forward, Manfred said that they “have been careful about the scope of involvement with crypto companies.”

“We’ve been really religious about staying away from coins themselves as opposed to more company-based sponsorships,” he said. “We think that was prudent particularly given the way things unfolded. We will, I think, proceed with caution in the future.”

A class-action lawsuit has been brought against celebrities who promoted FTX, thereby lending their credibility to what proved to be a specious venture.

“Part of the scheme employed by the FTX Entities involved utilizing some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment — like these Defendants— to raise funds and drive American consumers to invest,” the lawsuits states.

Among the athletes named as defendants is MLB two-way star Shohei Ohtani. In response, Manfred offered only that MLB wasn’t named in the lawsuit — although the league is reportedly discussing its course of action with legal counsel — and said of the individual players caught up in the fallout “they take advice from people other than us on these topics.”

But don’t expect to see FTX patches on uniforms in 2024. “I think that’s probably a pretty good bet,” Manfred said.

Streaming rights, RSNs and the future of watching baseball games

Baseball fans have repeatedly shared their frustration with accessing MLB games on streaming services — specifically, the local blackouts on MLB.tv. (It was the No. 1 concern Reddit users wanted relayed to Manfred during the World Series.) This past season, the league debuted a series of partnerships with streaming services — including Apple TV and Peacock — to broadcast weekly national games. But navigating the broader shift from cable to streaming while still prioritizing the lucrative RSN (regional sports network) deals has proved to be a complicated multiyear process for baseball.

Manfred said there was a “long report” on the RSN landscape made to the owners this week

“I think the look forward from our perspective,” he said, “is that there is a remnant of the cable bundle that has real economic value that we need to be aggressive about helping to survive to preserve those economics. Equally important, we need to develop digital products that get to people who have opted out of the bundle who currently don’t have access to our game.”

That all pretty much goes without saying. More interestingly, Manfred indicated that the deals with Peacock and Apple were just the beginning, that the interest would not have been there on either side if they were going to stay as single weekly game packages.

Those types of services, “we see that as part of the path forward in terms of delivering the game to people, when they want to watch it where they want to watch it, regardless of whether they’re in or out of the bundle,” he said.

As for MLB.tv, Manfred said it had nearly 3 million subscribers this season. He acknowledged the exclusivity deals with RSNs have prevented them from addressing blackouts previously. But said, encouragingly, that “part of the evolution of this landscape, I believe, is going to be a loosening of that exclusivity and put us in a position to deliver that type of digital product and market.”

As always: state of the Rays, A’s and expansion

After owners meetings in prior years included the bombshell that the Tampa Bay Rays would pursue a two-city plan, which was eventually nixed, this year was comparatively uneventful in terms of the lingering stadium woes in St. Petersburg and Oakland and the related issue of eventual expansion.

“I think Tampa and the A’s need to get resolved,” Manfred said. “And then, depending on how that all lands, we’ll have a more realistic opportunity to assess whether and where to expand.”

Las Vegas has become a “more appealing market over time,” he said — at least a point of leverage in the Oakland A’s ongoing quest to secure public funds for a new stadium. Rays owner Stu Sternberg, meanwhile, “describe[d] ongoing conversations across the Tampa Bay region.”

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