4 MLB business story lines to watch in 2015

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It’s sunny and the snowy days of March are fading in our memories. It’s time for baseball.

The Yankees take the field today in the Bronx at 1 p.m. to play the Blue Jays, and the Mets travel to Washington, D.C. to challenge the Nationals three hours later.

Sports fans in New York could be in for an upside-down season, as the Yankees expect to muddle through a challenging campaign and Mets fans possess some optimism for the first time since before Barack Obama moved into the White House. (Vegas oddsmakers give them both 33:1 odds to win it all.)

Behind the scenes, Major League Baseball finds itself in a period of flux, with a new top administrator taking the reins and challenging technological and business issues confronting the league. Here’s the top four business storylines to watch:

1. Product tinkering. Baseball is again experimenting with its core product. After introducing video replay last year, now MLB has imposed four new rules designed to shorten game times and keep the action flowing better. For example, batters won’t be allowed to leave the batter’s box between pitches.

This kind of thing doesn’t come easily for the tradition-conscious baseball fan and player, so keep an eye on the extent to which these rules are actually enforced, how much time the rules actually save and whether fans seem to notice at all. If the pace-of-play rules succeed and don’t cause any unanticipated consequences, expect MLB to get more aggressive about further change in hopes of luring new, young fans.

2. New commissioner makes his mark. Rob Manfred took the job late last year and swiftly engineered amajor reorganization of the league’s top executive levels in a more consumer-centric structure. Some of his moves so far have included promoting former MLB Advanced Media CEO Bob Bowman to president of business and media, reflecting the growing urgency behind the league’s digital and online strategy.

Manfred’s long-term goals include consolidating organized baseball at all levels, both professional and amateur, into a more coherent, structured community that better develops talent and keeps younger fans closer to the sport. The league’s aging fan base is its biggest long-term strategic challenge, and we’ll see much more as Manfred continues to carve out his identity.

3. In-market streaming, and the digital future. As we’ve reported, the league is still haggling with national broadband distributors and local cable channels over a deal to put local games online. MLB was a digital pioneer with its MLB.TV package that allows subscribers to watch any out-of-market game online, but local deals are a sticky wicket, legally speaking. Cable stations such as the Yes Network and SportsNet New York see the streaming games as direct competitors. And the world is catching up. When even streaming holdout HBO embraces online video, MLB has to find a way to get this deal done.

Separately, MLB Advanced Media is arguably a bigger business story than the league itself. It has its own clients who want to use its video-streaming technology (including HBO), and the league believes itcould be worth $5 billion if spun off. The league has big plans to show off its streaming skills too, Bowman told Techcrunch.

4. How bad do the Yankees get? What about the Mets? This one sounds more like sports and not business, but of course gate receipts, merchandise and television viewership tracks closely with actual performance on the field. 2015 is something of a cipher for both teams.

The Yankees are universally agreed to be in for a rough year(by Yankees standards). That still probably means winning about half of their games. Pay close attention to the business decisions made in the Bronx. It will be interesting to see how the team’s executives respond to an especially good start — do they open the wallets and try to buy help to make a run again? — or an especially bad start — do they sit tight and try to shore up the ship for 2016?

The Mets are heading in the opposite direction: Up. After struggling through six straight losing seasons, the Mets are projected to be, at very least, relevant to the championship discussion, and some think contend for a playoff sport. The Mets’ front office has fought for years to emerge from the painful shadows of the Bernie Madoff scandal, and a hot start could do wonders for the Mets’anemic attendance and merchandise sales.

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