MLB Deputy Commissioner Departs to Join Activision Blizzard

By John Ourand and Eric Prisbell 

One of MLB’s two Deputy Commissioners has left to take a senior job with the country’s biggest esports operator. MLB Deputy Commissioner of Business & Media Tony Petitti was named Activision Blizzard’s president of sports & entertainment today. He will remain based in N.Y and report to Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick. Petitti officially starts next week.

“What Tony’s going to be uniquely able to do is unite what we’re doing in sport, film and television and consumer products, into what we do in our live operations,” Kotick said. “Tony has a really unique set of skills. He has both vision and the ability to execute.”

Petitti’s move to go from the oldest U.S. league to the biggest esports company is sure to catch some by surprise. In his 12 years at MLB, Petitti rose through the ranks to the point where he was a key part of Commissioner Rob Manfred’s inner circle. Petitti was well known among the sports business, though he kept a relatively low profile. At MLB, he oversaw everything from marketing and special events to broadcast and digital media. He started at MLB in 2008 as MLB Network president, following a successful stint at CBS Sports.

“Tony has baseball in his blood. This was a really hard decision for him,” said The Montag Group’s Sandy Montag, a close friend and advisor of Petitti. “Bobby Kotick has very big ideas. I believe that they are going to do large things together. He thinks big. Tony knows how to build businesses. Video games, gaming and esports is just growing.”

In his role at Activision Blizzard, Petitti will call upon his experience at both an established league and a broadcast network. He will oversee efforts to move Activision brands into local markets. Before the pandemic hit, it had plans to operate Overwatch League and Call of Duty League in local markets. Petitti also will be called on to tell the stories of the players, teams and fans from both the professional and amateur leagues.

“When people are engaging and using the content and it means a lot to them, that’s an environment that you want to be in,” Petitti said. “That’s what gets me the most excited about being given this opportunity to do that and do it in another new space. That’s the best part of this opportunity to me.”

Sources say MLB Exec VP/Strategy, Technology & Innovation Chris Marinak and Exec VP/Business & Sales Noah Garden will take over much of Petitti’s responsibilities, and Rob McGlarry will continue to oversee MLB Network as President. With Petitti leaving, Manfred’s inner circle now includes Marinak, Garden, Deputy Commissioner Dan Halem, VP/On-Field Operations, Initiatives & Strategy. Chris Young, Exec VP/Baseball & Softball Development Tony Reagins, Chief People & Culture Officer Michele Meyer-Shipp, Special Assistant Joe Torre, General Counsel Lara Wisch, CFO Bob Starkey and Chief Communications Officer Pat Courtney.

Petitti was promoted to deputy commissioner in late 2017 following Bob Bowman’s departure after 17 years. Petitti and Braves Chair Terry McGuirk led recent negotiations for MLB to renew its rights deal with Turner at around a 40% average annual increase. Petitti led negotiations for MLB to renew its rights deal with Fox in November 2018, which sources said was worth $5.1 billion in total. Petitti was a principal dealmaker in securing Deltatre in 2019 as MLB’s new technology service provider and to back up its global network of nearly 300 digital destinations.

Petitti was an executive who had gained Manfred’s trust. In 2016, Manfred specifically pinpointed Petitti in playing the key role in helping to reshape how the league markets itself, particularly with young fans. Those efforts were reflected in bringing the game to non-traditional venues, such as Fort Bragg, N.C., where the Marlins and Braves played the first ever regular season sports event on a military base on July 3, 2016.

Pettiti played a role in helping to bring to life Manfred’s long-held “One Baseball” initiative designed, in part, to fully integrate all aspects of the business under one roof. That was achieved early this year when all MLB staff — approximately 1,400 employees from the league’s 245 Park Ave. offices and its MLBAM offices in Chelsea Market — formally moved into their new offices at 1271 Avenue of the Americas.

One of his most notable achievements came in 2015, when Petitti initiated important changes to MLB’s Home Run Derby, including implementing a bracketing system and timed rounds. That led to renewed popularity in the event, which was reflected in ratings.

And he played a role in the conception of the “Field of Dreams” Game, which was to be played Aug. 13 in Dyersville, Iowa, in a newly constructed temporary stadium before it was postponed until 2021 due to the pandemic.

“It is hard to innovate in sports that have been around for 100 years,” Kotick said. “When you’re in first innings like we are and you actually have the chance to innovate and appeal to even broader audiences of people, someone with Tony’s skills is going to have a unique platform to really take advantage of when you look at the hundreds and hundreds of millions of people that we reach.”

John Ourand and Eric Prisbell are writers for Sports Business Journal, where this article first appeared.

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