Perhaps it is fitting, or at the very least symbolic, that Bud Selig's final season as commissioner coincides with the first year of Major League Baseball's eight-year broadcasting agreement with ESPN—a multi-platform deal that doubled the network's rights fee from the previous agreement to an estimated $1.5 billion annually.
Beyond the labor peace of the past 20 years, Selig's biggest legacy will be making major league owners a lot of money. Certainly, Selig initiatives like playoff expansion, drug testing and instant replay have been significant. Yet they don't compare to industry revenue growing from $1.2 billion when Selig took over as commissioner in 1992 to over $8 billion through last season.
Ballooning price tags for media rights deals have been the driving force behind that growth, which Selig believes will continue. He told reporters during a conference call this afternoon that MLB revenue could top $9 billion this season.
"Given the fact that when in I started in ’92 it was a billion two, I'm proud of where we are today. I have hopes for $9 billion. I don't know that we'll make that this year but we may. How high can it go? If this sport continues to make progress at all levels, international and everything else, I've always said I hope I'm around 10 years from now to see it because it's going to be amazing . . . It can go a lot higher.”
Selig joined ESPN president John Skipper on the conference call today to recognize the 25th anniversary of the partnership between MLB and ESPN. Selig credited ESPN with helping build baseball's brand, noting that "ESPN has documented or televised all of the greatest moments."
And Skipper believes the network will be able to do even more under the new agreement. ESPN will televise as many as 101 games this season, including a return to postseason coverage for the first time since Fox took over exclusive rights to the playoffs in 2006. ESPN will televise a Wild-Card game and any tiebreaker games. It can also select up to four late-September "postseason impact games," the network announced in a press release.
Both Selig and Skipper championed the fact that ESPN will include all 30 teams in its coverage this season. "We've really reconfigured this deal because it's easy now (to show all 30 teams). We have real competitive balance, more so than we've ever had and more so than anybody has . . . The ESPN schedule will manifest what's going on in the sport, and that is we have a lot of teams that are very competitive and therefore will be on television."
The primetime Sunday night games will still focus the sport's most popular teams and biggest draws. "Sunday is the exclusive, marquee game," Skipper said. "It's in everybody's interest there to showcase marquee teams and marquee players."
Selig also confirmed previous reports about increasing penalties for players who violate the sport's drug policy and said harsher penalties are coming "very shortly," and gave the industry a figurative pat on the back for how far it’s come with drug testing
"We've come to a point that nobody could have dreamed about. I'm not telling you that things are perfect, but boy they've come a long, long way. I always quote my father who said 'Nothing is good or bad except by comparison.' And as WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and everybody else has said, we do have the toughest testing program in this country today."