TV-Biz Vet Tom Werner Just Might Be the Next Baseball Commissioner

Tom Werner Baseball Commissioner
Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Werner's candidacy is a measure of the growing importance the role television plays in bankrolling professional sports

Tom Werner’s career arc may be taking him from exec producer of “That ’70s Show” to czar of the Show.

In the past week, Werner has emerged as a dark horse candidate to succeed Bud Selig as baseball commissioner when the 30 Major League owners convene Thursday in Baltimore to elect a new chief.

Werner’s is among three names being considered, along with Rob Manfred, baseball’s chief operating officer; and Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president for business. It’s a measure of the growing importance of the role television plays in bankrolling professional sports through ever-more-lucrative rights deals that a founding partner of  Carsey-Werner — a TV production company that shepherded some of the industry’s biggest hits  — would be considered in the mix alongside a pair of high-powered lawyers. (Of course, Werner is also a minority owner in the Boston Red Sox.)

In an Aug. 11 email sent to the Boston Herald concerning his preferences for the qualifications of the next commish, Red Sox principal owner John Henry wrote: “Given today’s world … we need a businessman who understands more than the inherent problems of owners and of labor. That person must excel in understanding media, entertainment, competition and business as well as the sport.”

It makes sense that Werner, who saw a record-shattering payout when Carsey-Werner sold syndication rights to “The Cosby Show,” should merit such confidence, especially from a business partner. But according to various reports, knowledge of rights deals is only the half the battle, with the issues at play on Thursday far juicier than meet the eye.

What had seemed to be a rubber-stamp process just a few weeks ago, with Selig figuring to get near unanimous support for Manfred — his hand-picked choice to succeed him when the commissioner retires at the end of the year after 22 years in office — has become more of a palace intrigue, with an internecine battle brewing among owners.

The fight includes valuation of regional sports networks, which figure into a complex formula that determines teams’ revenue-sharing responsibilities. Big-market clubs like the Red Sox don’t like the idea of subsidizing micro-spenders in Oakland and Tampa Bay, for instance.

Los Angeles Angels owner Arte Moreno and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf are backing Werner. With 23 of 30 votes needed to select a commissioner, the rebels need to pick up five more votes to block the anointment of Manfred.

Will big-market teams like the Dodgers and Yankees be among those to break ranks? If neither Werner nor Manfred is elected, owners could line up behind Brosnan, who two years ago led negotiations that secured a $12.4 billion national TV rights deals with Fox, ESPN and Turner that runs through 2021; and in 2004, helped deliver the league’s $650 million 11-year deal with XM Radio. Moreno reportedly backs Werner because the Angels owner believes Manfred has been too quick to reach agreement with the players union.

If Werner is elected commissioner, it’s unclear the effect it would have on his day job. When he was majority owner of the San Diego Padres from 1990-94, Carsey-Werner was producing “Roseanne,” among other shows. The company shuttered as a production entity in 2005, but Werner has continue to keep his hand in the business, with shingle Good Humor TV. In January, NBC ordered to pilot the Werner-exec produced series “Love Is Relative.”

Werner’s love of baseball runs deep. When he was a senior at Harvard in the early ’70s, he made a short documentary  for a visual studies class that featured Fenway Park.

Manfred is still the likely choice to be tapped as MLB’s new leader, but to understand just how unpredictable the process is, you have to go back only to 1992, when commissioner Fay Vincent was ousted. The man who led the uprising? Jerry Reinsdorf. The man they chose to put in his place? Bud Selig.

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