On the second Tuesday of February, at 3:00 in the afternoon, around 40 employees of MLB Advanced Media—one arm of MLB’s media empire, which also includes MLB.com, MLB Network and MLB Productions—nervously filed into a conference room at MLBAM’s office in Manhattan’s Chelsea Market. They had been living in fear of layoffs for months, thanks to longstanding plans for the company’s move to the MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus, New Jersey, and had received an email the previous day announcing a mandatory meeting. As they arrived, two people from MLB’s human resources department ticked their names off a list and sent them to one of two rooms. The people sent to one room were safe; the people sent to the other, including producers and editors who had worked for the company for a decade or longer, were laid off on the spot. In all, 18 people, nearly all of them full-timers, lost their jobs.
In the months leading up to the layoffs, sources say, management sent mixed messages and lied outright about who would get to keep their jobs, while the layoffs themselves were poorly handled and carried out by people whom those losing their jobs had never even met. But the crucial story isn’t the layoffs or MLBAM’s move to Secaucus, New Jersey—those, are, after all, mere business decisions. It’s that while those at the top of the MLB food chain are making more money than ever, those at the bottom are underpaid and overworked, toiling away in a toxic work environment that top baseball leadership allowed to fester even after former MLBAM CEO Bob Bowman was ousted in December 2017 for egregious workplace misconduct.
What’s happening with MLBAM is an instantiation of the way that those in charge of the national pastime, concerned mostly with maximizing already extravagant revenues, treat their most vulnerable workers. Just look at this recent story about how players aren’t paid for spring training, or at how MLB lobbied a bill preventing minor leaguers from being paid overtime into law. MLBAM had been allowed to operate, sources say, as an insular, Mad Men-style office—resulting in a wage suppression lawsuit and settlement—for nearly two decades because it was bringing in gobs and gobs of money thanks largely to its streaming operation, known as BAM. Since that operation was spun off and sold to Disney as BAMTech last summer, the calculus has changed somewhat. The treatment of workers has not.
Deadspin reviewed internal communications from MLB Network and MLBAM and spoke to more than a dozen current and former MLBAM employees from a number of departments within the company, all of whom were granted anonymity so as not to jeopardize employment or severance. Those conversations revealed a common thread: Under MLBAM’s vice president of multimedia Mike Siano and his right-hand man, MLBAM’s director of multimedia Brett Kaplan, MLBAM fostered an unhealthy and overly demanding culture in which people worked in fear of being berated and insulted for small mistakes and were disastrously managed, resulting in the aforementioned wage suppression lawsuit that was settled earlier this year for $1.3 million. The February layoffs may have been what broke the seal on MLBAM’s workplace culture, but the problems have existed for years, and continue, sources say, to this day.
Kaplan, whom sources describe as the bulldog enforcer to Siano’s clueless, removed boss type, is said to be especially capricious. He would demand that employees stay and work well past their shifts’ ends and through the night, sometimes insisting on the completion of various time-consuming projects on a whim; knew little about the technology and operations that his employees used; and was quick to upbraid his subordinates. Siano, on the other hand, once famously sent an email to staff that read: “Your all idiots.”
Through an MLB spokesman, Kaplan and Siano declined to respond to detailed requests for comment. A spokeswoman for MLB Network declined to comment when asked who Siano and Kaplan have reported and report to and said, “There have been no reports to human resources of these, or any similar, allegations.”
MLBAM, ownership of which is divided equally among MLB’s 30 teams, was founded in 2000 as a way to help individual teams create websites; a few years later, it began to stream MLB games. Led by Bob Bowman, MLBAM’s streaming service soon attracted clients including WWE, Fox Sports, and Hulu. As it grew, it attracted the interest of ever bigger companies, eager to compete with the nascent streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime. HBO, for example, turned to MLBAM in 2014 to launch its streaming service, HBO Now. In 2015, MLBAM took over all the digital operations for NHL and NHL Network and spun off its streaming division, calling it BAMTech. (The NHL is now, along with MLB, a minority stakeholder in BAMTech). In 2016, Disney bought a 33 percent stake for $1 billion; a year later, it paid an additional $1.6 billion for a majority stake. Another former executive who worked under Bowman, Dinn Mann, is now suing MLBAM, claiming he was promised a 2 percent stake in MLBAM/BAMTech, which is now estimated to be worth $80 million.
(The financial and hierarchical relationship between Major League Baseball and MLBAM itself is unclear, though MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has touted his plan to combine the various business branches of MLB under the mantra “One Baseball.” MLB is a separate entity from MLBAM, but it nonetheless has influence over MLBAM. In the reporting of this story, public-relations representatives from MLB.com, MLB Network, and MLB collectively provided answers to Deadspin, but asked for responses to be attributed to an MLB spokesperson. When asked specifically what would be the best way to describe the relationship between MLB and MLBAM, the spokespeople answered narrowly: “MLB oversees MLBAM in the organizational restructuring we have provided information on.”)
After the sale to Disney, MLBAM/BAMTech employees were divided up, with some staying to work for MLBAM, and others going to work for BAMTech. On the MLBAM side, employees and part-time workers collectively handled practically all of MLB’s digital content. It was a massive amount of work, spread out across three divisions: production, publishing, and the video edit floor. On any given Tuesday night in May, some 35 to 40 people would be working across the divisions to coordinate content with teams and partners, cut and edit video for highlight reels, churn out real-time highlights for social media, write metadata for each piece of content, then publish it to the team websites, social media platforms, and mobile app.
Nearly every person Deadspin spoke to about working at MLBAM described a talented and hardworking staff that regularly worked as late as 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. ET, and sometimes much longer. Just as consistently, they described a grueling and “toxic” work environment created primarily, they said, by Kaplan and Siano. While Siano had been with MLBAM since its early days, Kaplan, who started at MLBAM in 2005 as a video editor, took a management role in the MLBAM video department in 2009, according to his LinkedIn, and set about “cleaning up shop,” as one former employee put it. Some editors and producers quit because they simply couldn’t work for him. Those that could steered clear of him.
“[Kaplan] works really hard but people hate him because he treats people entirely as a commodity without any compromise. So the morale issues ... they started pretty much from day one,” a source said.
A different source concurred.
“I remember hearing Kaplan and Siano talk down to one supervisor and that it bothered me so much that I was messaging the person next to me, like, ‘Why is this happening?’ Just their tone, talking to someone like they’re stupid.”
Yet another source said, “I’ve seen emails from Siano that were not professional and definitely asshole-ish. If I were to have received those emails I would be deeply troubled. And hurt and offended.”
Sources consistently said that they generally had good relationships with their colleagues and immediate managers, but described a “trickle-down” effect of cruelty and negativity that started at the top. If Kaplan sent a text or Slack message during the 13th inning of a game in the middle of the night demanding a certain video be edited a certain way, it fell to the managers to to make it happen, which created more stress for the overworked people at the bottom.
“[Kaplan] would tell us to tweak things just for the sake of being a supervisor and wanting to have an input,” a source said, noting that Kaplan would send emails at all hours of the day and night. “It’s not just the most extreme micromanaging ever, it’s like, when does he sleep?”
Former employees described Kaplan belittling them and others in the office when they wanted to try new assignments; berating workers for small mistakes; shaming them about taking their allotted vacation days, even in the offseason; seeing an older and less digitally savvy employee bullied; and having to do “peer reviews” in which each employee evaluated their coworkers’ job performance, which was then used to decide who would get raises. These issues resulted, sources say, in complaints to MLBAM HR, which was for years run by Leslie Knickerbocker, and which was its own department until December 2018, when it merged with MLB’s HR department. The MLB Network spokeswoman said, “MLBAM HR does not have any record of any formal complaint against Mike Siano or Brett Kaplan relating to the ‘cultivation of a culture of fear and disrespect.’”
Several sources said they were reluctant to go to MLBAM HR for fear of rocking the boat and being replaced, because they felt like it was futile, or that there would be repercussions because, they worried, Knickerbocker’s HR would share confidential concerns with management.
“There was a close relationship between HR and upper management,” one source said. (MLB Network still has a separate HR department. Knickerbocker also resigned in 2018, the MLB Network spokeswoman said.)
The peer review process was phased out, but the rest of the problems persisted.
“From the top, the culture was very aggressive and demanding,” one source said. “You were on edge. If you made a mistake you’d know you’d get busted on email the next day, insults, all of it.”
The sheer volume of work made for a hectic environment in which everyone was spread thin. But when someone made a mistake, there was little room for reflection.
“I don’t mind getting chewed out if I make a mistake, but 10 years of blaming an underling instead of doing some problem solving or showing leadership means you’re going to spend a lot of time calling people idiots,” a source said.
Requests as simple as asking HR for a job description would go ignored, according to former employees, and several sources said they were promoted in title only, meaning more work and more responsibility for the same amount of money.
“If we asked about new responsibilities with no pay, there was no answer. Complaints just weren’t even acknowledged,” a different source said.
What makes this all even more remarkable is that less than two years ago, former MLBAM president and CEO Bob Bowman was finally forced out of the company after more than a decade of concerns about his workplace misconduct, which included propositioning female subordinates, shoving an MLB team executive, and berating employees. In their story breaking the news, the Wall Street Journal quoted a person familiar with Bowman, who said, “He would be a holy terror some days. He would just talk down to people. He was often yelling. Just disrespectful.”
Though Bowman wasn’t, sources say, involved in the day-to-day MLBAM activities by the time Kaplan took a managing role, he and Siano had worked together for years. MLBAM employees who were familiar with Bowman, even distantly, said his aggressive style persisted under the leadership of Siano and Kaplan.
“The attitude I saw expressed definitely trickled down to the managers. It was just a bunch of people who would say yes to upper management and then take that culture and distribute it down. I feel like that was the way to deal with issues. To berate, not threaten, but belittle,” one source said. “In person, yelling, emails, no regard for just putting people on blast.”
A different source said: “Even when Bowman was ousted people said ‘nothing is going to change’ because these guys operate the same way.”
While Kaplan, who had a cubicle, would march around the office—one source recalled him patrolling the edit floor with a baseball and glove, thwacking the ball over and over again into his mitt as he surveilled the work—Siano, who had an office, for the most part took on more of a passive role, mainly sending critical emails to employees as he saw fit. One such email, per multiple sources, read: “Your all idiots.”
He then sent a followup email that read: “Excuse me, you’re.”
One of Kaplan’s most notable management contributions, sources say, was his plan to to change how hours were clocked in an effort to avoid paying overtime. All freelancers were paid an hourly rate until the end of the 2012 season. At that point, workers were told they couldn’t work overtime anymore, and that they would be subject to a new pay structure. The new payment method offered a flat rate for working games (one source told me it was $175 per game), and then hourly pay for original content and other work. The result of this was to make it harder to accrue overtime hours.
This change, which several employees said they identified as sketchy at the time, resulted in a class action lawsuit against MLBAM. The suit covered 197 workers over a three year span, and in January MLBAM settled for nearly $1.3 million.
When asked if MLB disputed that Kaplan had created and implemented the overtime policy, the MLB Network spokeswoman said, “We don’t comment on specifics in regard to legal matters, but we were pleased that the matter could be resolved to the parties’ mutual satisfaction.” (Kaplan declined to comment through an MLB spokesman.) Several sources said that the “majority” of people who were let go last month worked as freelancers for MLBAM before eventually being brought on full time, and that they are eligible to get money from the settlement. The MLB Network spokeswoman declined to address this.
Prompted by concerns about overtime and pay, the subject of unionization did come up at MLBAM, according to some sources. (Other sources said they hadn’t heard talk of unionization.) However, the fear of being replaced immediately for stirring up trouble put a damper on any discussions that were had about organizing.
While some indignities, like having hours and wages manipulated, could have been illegal, others were so petty to be comical. When there were big events like the All-Star Game, or other occasions that would mean an especially long and busy night for staff, MLBAM would provide food for the people working. Several people recalled getting tacos on one such night, only to be told there was a strict food limit per person.
“They were like, ‘Okay, guys, two tacos max,’” one source said. “It was more just kind of symbolic of the culture.”
The callous treatment of workers which defined many employees’ experiences at MLBAM also extended into the layoff process, according to those who spoke to Deadspin.
“The layoff is just right in line with how we were treated there,” one person said. “Just soulless.”
“Some people knew it was happening but for some who got let go it was definitely a surprise,” a different source said. “They kept everyone in the dark and lied to their faces.”
“I felt like we were led on during the year,” a different source said. “There were times during the season where our superiors assured us, ‘Yeah we’re going to Secaucus, it’s happening in March,’ even asking us about commuting plans and stuff. [...] Then the season started to wind down. It was like, what’s up with the secrecy?”
While MLB Network mostly handled and produced linear broadcasts and video for the studio shows, including MLB Tonight, MLBAM handled all the broadcast streams for games, cut videos for use on social media and for the MLB team sites, made GIFs, edited, produced, categorized, and published highlights across platforms. In the February layoffs, ahead of MLBAM’s move to Secaucus, the edit floor, where video was cut and edited, was wiped out, something that a few people said they saw coming.
“It wasn’t a surprise, some of it may have even been warranted with bringing digital and linear under one roof,” one former employee said. “[The floor] was the most redundant. With that being said, there were a lot of mistakes and misdirection on the part of management.”
Nearly everyone I spoke to chalked this up to poor communication about the merging of MLB Network and MLBAM staff. Some employees who were laid off said that they had been assured by their managers that they would still have a job in Secaucus.
“The uncertainty, especially the past couple of months—theoretically, any day you could be told if you have a job or not,” a different former employee said of the layoffs. “They had at least a year to make this decision.”
In the two weeks leading up to the layoffs, a different source said, one employee questioned why members of the production and publishing departments had gone to Secaucus for training, but members of the edit floor had not not.
“That was when we were told that the week of the 11th we should get some sort of news. We were even calling it D-day. And then on the 11th we got the email.”
The layoffs themselves weren’t even handled by Kaplan, Siano, or anyone from MLB Network. Workers were instead laid off by representatives from MLB’s headquarters on Park Avenue, one of whom nervously laughed during the layoff conversation, a source said. When asked about which HR department had handled the February layoffs, the MLB Network spokeswoman said, “In early 2018, the MLB and MLBAM human resources departments, like other business function areas between the two entities, were combined as part of an overall organizational initiative to streamline operations. MLB Network’s human resources department remains separate. We will not disclose further information on organizational personnel matters.”
Two people who were in the meeting mentioned that one person, the only woman in the room, did speak up to call out management for the callous way the layoffs were handled. The woman did not respond to requests for comment, so Deadspin isn’t naming her.
“[She] was the only one who stood up and she was a little emotional, but she chewed him out,” a source said.
Another person also described this exchange.
“They kept saying MLB Network has decided this, but no one from MLB Network was there to tell us this. And someone asked, ‘If they’re the ones taking our jobs why aren’t they here to talk to us?’ And they had no answer.”
The move to MLB Network headquarters in Secaucus is nearly complete, but there’s still plenty of uncertainty among workers about how operations will proceed at Secaucus and in the Chelsea office. Sources have described a definite sense of immediate uncertainty among the Chelsea staff that moved to Secaucus. According to sources, some freelancers rejected the offer to move to MLB Network. Others accepted it, but plan to stay only until they find other work.
“Everyone is really really mad about how this has been handled,” a source said.
Before the February layoffs, according to sources, the schedules for video staff would go out more than two weeks in advance. Now, given that the person in charge of making those schedules was laid off, Kaplan has been in charge of it, and sends them out much later, sometimes hours before the work week starts. (The MLB Network spokeswoman said, “As various production and operations areas have been modified over the last several weeks, scheduling has been in a period of transition leading up to the start of the regular season.”) And with the transition of MLBAM video operations nearly complete, there are lingering questions about the overlap with existing MLB Network staff. There’s also talk about what will be left of MLBAM itself at the Chelsea office. One source said that they were told earlier this year that MLBAM was not going to exist anymore. Another said it was just going to be the MLB.com writers. The MLB Network spokeswoman said MLBAM would continue to exist. “Our technology areas continue to operate out of offices in Chelsea (NYC), San Francisco and Boulder (CO),” she said.
One thing, though, seems likely: Since laying off more than a dozen full-time video staffers and keeping the freelance and part-time video staff, a greater proportion of MLB’s video editing work will be done by freelancers and part-time workers, raising questions about why the full-time workers with those jobs were fired. One possible answer is suggested by the fact that, according to sources, some of the freelancers moving from MLBAM to MLB Network headquarters will be forced to take pay cuts, with some having to accept a significant pay cut, to $22 per hour. An MLB.com spokesperson said, “The premise that there will be more reliance on part-time video staff is inaccurate.” However, two days after the layoffs, MLB Network director of production Will Cope sent an email to MLBAM freelancers, announcing the new order and asking if they “would like to start working with us.” He wrote, “we do rely on a large freelance staff.” Cope, however, didn’t guarantee regular full-time hours, said he “anticipates” that benefits will transfer, and touted MLB Network’s “subsidized cafeteria and mini-mart.” You can read the full email here. For the freelancers who were being asked to move from MLBAM to MLB Network in Secaucus, this email wasn’t reassuring. Still having a job is bittersweet.
“We got a shitty offer but the full-timers just got axed,” one employee said.
When asked about the shift to using more part-time workers and decreasing the hourly wage for freelancers, an MLB Network spokeswoman said:
Due to the nature of these roles, there’s always been a combination of staff and freelance personnel, which will continue in the reorganized structure in Secaucus with a new, modernized workflow that eliminates redundancies and provides more opportunities for professional growth and advancement. Many freelance employees were offered positions at or above their previous pay rate, and a number of freelancers were offered positions at rates slightly less than what they previously received because there is a defined structure and uniformity in pay for those positions.
For a multinational corporation, raking in billions every year in revenue, the scrimping on labor costs for the people behind the scenes seems cartoonishly greedy, especially when its presented as a way to “provide more opportunities for professional growth and advancement.”
“My guess is they’re going to cut content and use freelancers for the rest,” a source said. “So my guess is that they’re saving money that way.”
Like other digital sports media companies like SB Nation, FanSided, NJ.com, 12up.com, and many more, MLBAM banks on people’s desire to work in sports and media overcoming their desire to not work for low pay or be treated poorly.
“They have a ton of young candidates lined up at the door. When you get there you realize how disposable you are,” a source said.
A different source said many people justified the overnight hours, pay, and management by saying, “At the end of the day we get paid to watch baseball. That was what we fell back on. Yes, I’m being talked down to every night and belittled [...] but it’s baseball.”
For all the changes to MLB’s media operations, there are a few constants: Kaplan and Siano. Kaplan has moved over to Secaucus but he will no longer be overseeing video operations. No more “super micromanaging,” as one source put it bluntly. When asked about what his role would be, an MLB Network spokeswoman said, “Brett Kaplan will continue to have a role in media management and content publishing.”
Siano’s role has not changed much. The MLB Network spokeswoman said, “Mike Siano will continue to work out of Chelsea and serve our digital business in his role as VP, Multimedia Content.”
If you take what MLB says at face value, the 18 people who were laid off last month were simply casualties of shifting business preogratives. But it’s more than that. MLB raked in a record revenue of $10.3 billion in revenues last year. According to Forbes, that doesn’t even include the $2.6 billion from the sale of BAMTech to Disney. Even if it was high time for the perennially mismanaged MLBAM to be folded into the more respectable wings of MLB’s media realm, laying off full-time employees in favor of cheaper—and often less experienced—part-timers and freelancers is hardly an improvement for workers. MLB and MLBAM like to present as leaders in media: the innovators who created one of the most successful streaming companies in the world, and powerful forces in both traditional and digital media. But when it comes to the people making all of it happen, these innovators are all too happy to follow along as the industry trends toward devaluing employees’ work.
That fits with what goes on generally in Major League Baseball, which right now is a business of extremes. At the top of the food chain, MLB is enjoying record revenues, with the average MLB team value being worth $1.64 billion, according to Forbes’ most recent MLB franchise valuations from 2018—more than triple the $482 million average from 10 years ago. At the bottom, the league’s greed means minor league players have to struggle to live a stable life.
“Baseball is the only sport I love and the only sport I care about,” said one source, “and on top of what I’ve seen with owners dicking around free agents and how the commissioner’s office isn’t helping players, it’s a bummer to see it happening internally as well.”
At the top, team owners are backstroking in heaps of money thanks in no small part to the sale of BAMTech, while passing on even trying to sign the best players to help their teams win. At the bottom of the owners’ massive media company, where the editors and producers churning out content all night long for the league’s content maw dwell, there’s poor leadership and wanting labor practices—the same things that persisted under Bowman for years and years, which baseball swept to the side for more than a decade. Owners, as ever, are happy to have the work done; they just don’t want to pay for it.
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