MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has spent much of his time in charge trying to unlock one seemingly impossible riddle: how can baseball attract new fans, specifically a younger market seemingly uninterested in the game?
The reason the answer to this riddle as eluded Manfred so long, is that he does not seem to grasp that the game itself is not what needs to change, but rather the approach to bringing in fans. Rather than eliminating blackouts, suggesting free games for kids, or reducing overall ticket prices, Manfred continues to tinker with the rules governing relief pitcher use and making suggestions for shortening extra innings with runners on base.
His newest suggestion, announced Monday afternoon, is perhaps the boldest and potentially most divisive yet.
Manfred has an idea to expand the postseason from including five playoff teams per league (three division winners, and two wild card teams) to seven playoff teams per league. How precisely would this work?
The team holding the best overall league record would be able to skip directly to the League Division series, avoiding the wild card altogether. The remaining two division winners, plus the wild card team with the best record after those two division winners, would host all the games in a best-of-three wild card series. So, in this iteration of the playoffs there would be four, not two wild card teams.
Where it gets unique, is that the team with the second-best league record would get to pick their competition from the bottom-three ranked wild card teams. Then the next division winner would pick their competitor, and lastly the two remaining wild card teams would play each other.
There’s an added Bachelor rose ceremony element of this, in that the suggestion is to air the selection of teams on the last Sunday of the regular season. Naturally, the airing of these selections is meant to entice some network (think Fox or ESPN) to clamor for the rights to broadcast it.
The goal of this has intriguing merits: with better opportunity to make it to the postseason, teams would potentially push harder to make that late season run. If you have a better chance to make it to the postseason, perhaps that would mean we’d see fewer teams tanking as a result. Maybe.
It would eliminate the potential for Game 163. And hosting all three games at one stadium means the new series could be played relatively quickly after the end of the regular season, thus it wouldn’t extend the length of the postseason deep into November.
Another element, and one that surely appeals to Manfred, is the ability to make network deals for more games being broadcast. This might be pitched as a new opportunity to draw in new fans, but ultimately it is truly just a way to make more broadcast deals.
One of the major issues with the postseason as a springboard for drawing in fans, is that it relies on having a cable package. Don’t have Fox? If you live internationally, you can watch via MLB.tv (a mere $130 a year), but if you live in the US, you have no options. In a culture where we’re increasingly seeing millennials cutting cable, to keep a game restricted to a broadcast network will never be the way to appeal to new fans. It’s the same issue MLB faces with the All-Star Game, which is likewise broadcast restricted.
This also doesn’t take into account how frustrating the existing postseason schedule already is, with exciting pairings scheduled mid-day, and a clear preference for teams like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers to get the prime time slots.
If the goal of this new plan is to motivate teams to compete, and to make broadcast partners happy, then Manfred has hit the nail on the head. It’s actually not a terrible postseason format, and for fans already watching, it adds an element of excitement.
If the idea is to bring in a newer, younger audience and find an untapped market of fans, then it sorely misses the mark.
Either way, the proposed format needs to get a stamp of approval from the MLBPA during the next Collective Bargaining Agreement, and by that point MLB will be trying to avoid a complete work stoppage. The earliest the 14-team format could debut is the 2022 season, and it still remains to be seen if we will see any baseball played at all that year.