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What do the Wild Card ratings mean for the new postseason format?

A lot of fans tuned in for the first round of the expanded postseason.

Wild Card Round - Houston Astros v Minnesota Twins - Game Two Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It could be bad news for baseball fans who loathed the new expanded postseason format: too many of us watched it anyway.

Whether it was a case of more teams being included and therefore drawing in more viewers, or just that more of us were working from home and able to tune into a game in the middle of the afternoon, the story turns out the same: ESPN’s Wild Card ratings were a hit.

While the 16-team format was only ever meant to be for this shortened 2020 season to help maintain extra interest for fans, it’s time to start acknowledging that the whole mission behind Rob Manfred’s job and all the changes he has made, is that he wants to sell a product, and an increase in views is seen as an increase in sales.

It’s too soon to know how the ratings for the remainder of the postseason will go, and certainly a lot will depend on who makes it to the World Series. Yes, a Rays/Padres World Series would be fun for a seasoned baseball expert, but we all know Yankees/Dodgers or an Astros/Dodgers rematch will draw in a bigger audience. Everyone loves a spectacle, and casual fans love to cheer for teams they know a little something about.

ESPN collected the results of all the Wild Card ratings aired on their stations (including ABC), but note that these results do not include the games broadcast on TBS or Fox, but we’ll get into those below as well.

In the case of ESPN, they released the following statement about their numbers:

Overall, ESPN platforms averaged 1,836,000 viewers across its 16 game telecasts. Despite head-to-head competition from the first Presidential debate, the most-watched game of the week was Game 1 between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians on September 29, drawing an average of 2,642,000 viewers.

What’s incredible about these numbers, as mentioned above, is that there was a lot of competition for views the week of the Wild Card. From the first Presidential debate, to the NBA finals, there were things being watched that would pull an audience away from baseball, and yet viewership was high. And while not the highest numbers ever for postseason baseball, the fact that almost two million people were watching the packed Wild Card schedule is a testament to the appeal of being able to see so much postseason ball.

It’s worth noting that compared to other Wild Card games with a winner-take-all format, these numbers actually signal a drop, as the previous lowest-viewed Wild Card game was actually the very first one in 2012 between the Cardinals and Braves, and that game had almost four million viewers. So while ESPN might tout their single-game numbers, there was a fair bit of drop off for some of the series.

There’s a lot to be said about which teams are playing, though. As mentioned earlier, a known-name club is going to draw more viewers. Case and point is the ratings for the second game in the Rays/Jays Wild Card — which drew a mere 345,000 viewers, the lowest ratings ever for an MLB playoff game.

ESPN is thrilled about their ratings for this new format, but does that mean it’s here to stay? Ultimately no one game drew in the same amount of viewership as the previous format which saw four teams duel it out in two winner-take-all games. This new best-of-three format offers more viewing options — and certainly delivered some upsets — but do the views merit a continuation of the format?

More games means more ad sales, means more revenue, certainly, and while they might package this format as an opportunity to see more teams have a chance at the postseason, what it really is is an attempt for MLB to make more money. If this new “temporary” format has proven to be a winner at the bank, you can expect to see it stick around.