Business of baseball on stage at Diversity Summit
Steinbrenner, Sternberg, Ricketts and Bowman discuss future of sport
NEW YORK -- The business of baseball came alive on Tuesday when four of the game's top executives took time to address the audience at MLB's third annual Diversity Business Summit.
Three team owners -- Hal Steinbrenner, Stuart Sternberg and Tom Ricketts -- shared the stage with Bob Bowman, the president and chief executive officer of Major League Baseball Advanced Media, and they took turns regaling the audience with perspective from their unique positions.
Steinbrenner, the managing general partner of the Yankees, had a hand in sponsoring the Summit, and he spoke Tuesday about the importance of being involved in your community. At one point, he was asked how to make a positive impression in an interview, and he delivered an interesting reply.
"Be confident. Not arrogant, but confident. And be excited about what you've got to offer," Steinbrenner said. "We really look for people -- whether it's someone coming to be an employee or a vendor -- that have a good story to tell about their product or their service. That's something that's very important to us, but it's also important to have a track record, to be active and established in the community."
Steinbrenner, the son of former Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, also discussed what it was like to take over the family business.
"You've got to be your own guy. That's a lesson in life for anyone," said Steinbrenner of succeeding his late father. "Everybody brings their individual traits to the table, their strengths and weaknesses. We're different in a lot of ways and we're similar in some ways, but I just try to do the best job I can for my family and for our partners. ... I know what my weaknesses are. I know what my strengths are. And I try to stay within those parameters. I don't try to get too creative and do things that aren't my strength. But it's been an interesting ride. It's a big transition when you're replacing someone larger than life."
Sternberg, a New York native and the principal owner of the Tampa Bay Rays, spent time discussing a couple matters close to his heart: Business and the mathematics of the game.
Major League Baseball recently named Sternberg as the chairman of an On-Field Diversity Task Force designed to make the game more attractive to African-American players and personnel, and he spoke passionately Tuesday about the mission to make the game more inclusive on all levels.
"It's something that is morally absolutely the correct thing for us to be doing," said Sternberg. "And on top of that, it's good for business as well. When people understand that it's good for our business, it's a little bit easier to get them on board with all the things that are necessary to move things along."
Sternberg, a former partner at Goldman Sachs, said that the most important thing for baseball is to maintain its current fanbase and to find a way to expand.
"It's relatively clear in our head: It's reaching the young families. Families that are forming," he said of the game's great challenge. "We've been fortunate enough to be given a legacy of 140 or 150 years of baseball handed down from generation to generation. ... We have the advantage of having generational fans, and it's the most important thing by far that we continue to appeal to the youngest fans."
Bowman spoke about some of the new advances at MLBAM, and detailed the league's new instant replay system. All replay reviews are made by umpires rotating through at MLB.com's headquarters in New York, and Bowman credited the league with being willing to take a chance on technology.
"We had the easy part. We had the building part, the operations part, the technology part," said Bowman. "It starts with vision and courage. The vision to see it and the courage to see it through. That's not always easy in any walk of life, particularly when you're instituting something like replay for a game that is more than 150 years old. But it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it."
Now, thanks to the use of a wide variety of cameras in big league parks, baseball is on the verge of an information revolution.
Bowman described how the next generations of fans will watch the game. The average fan will be able to watch an outfielder track a ball down in the outfield, and they'll have a readout that displays how fast the player ran, how far they ran and whether the route they took to the ball was efficient.
The applications are practically limitless, and there's no telling what data will be tracked next.
"General managers and presidents in baseball, they know it. They live it every day," said Bowman of seeing the hidden side of the game. "Now the average fan can have the tools to be better informed about what a great jump it was or whether it was an efficient route or an inefficient route. [Maybe] he rounded third base 10 feet too wide. ... Now they have the tools so they can start to understand the complexity and quite frankly the greatness of the athletes on the field. We'll understand it better. Our hope, I will quickly add, is not to diminish arguments but hopefully to start a few more."
Ricketts, the chairman of the Cubs, knows all about generational fandom and the importance of keeping your customers happy. The Cubs have one of the most famously loyal fanbases in professional sports, and Ricketts knows that the love for his home park -- venerable Wrigley Field -- plays into that.
"Stuart made a great point about making sure that the fans we have pass along baseball to the next generation. Because that is how baseball is passed along. It's a grandfather taking a father, and your father took you, and you take your kids," Ricketts said. "I also think we need to focus on making sure that the fanbase is representative of the changing demographics of the country. As the country grows and diversifies, we have to make sure we're relevant to how the country will look in 20 years or 50 years. That puts it on us to make sure we're out in different communities and trying to build those fanbases."
Ricketts and Sternberg also shared what they think about the game's newest statistics and how they can help a team craft a strategy. Interestingly, both Sternberg and Ricketts think that teams have essentially caught up with each other and that the next advance is unknown.
"I think there might have been a window where certain teams had an advantage by looking at numbers in a more thoughtful way, but I think that's closed," said Ricketts of the Moneyball era. "Maybe there are some new ways of injury prevention, injury prediction or injury recovery. There might be an edge out there for teams, but it's really tough and I think it really goes back to making sure you do your blocking and tackling on traditional scouting as well. Bring in the right players and keep them healthy."
"When you're dealing with numbers, they're binary and precise. The odds are 51-49 or 99-1 and you can digitize the outcome," said Sternberg. "The issue with that is for the most part, baseball is still an art. The science part of it, the numbers, we've taken out to the nth degree. There were teams before us who have done a lot of proprietary things, and we've done some things as well. ... The wonderful thing is that it's enabled people to study the game in a way that hadn't been done before. In one respect, the nerds are taking over the world. We see what's going on in Silicon Valley with everybody and their phones. In baseball, I think we've reached that point where we're at that last two percent."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.