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2021 wild card games may be MLB’s last as playoff expansion looms

One game play-in format could soon be eliminated in the new Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Los Angeles Dodgers v San Francisco Giants Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Baseball anxiety is at a boiling point in California at the fact that one of baseball’s two best teams this season, either the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants, each with 100 plus victories, will be forced into a one game elimination playoff against a team with about 14 fewer wins. Back in New York, MLB headquarters and the networks are bubbling with excitement at the idea of a play-in game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox for the first time since Bucky Dent’s walk off home run in 1978. Fans should enjoy the one game wild card format while they can, because it’s likely to become a thing of the past by next season.

The fondest wish of MLB owners in a new collective bargaining agreement, it is expanding the number of teams in the postseason, creating more playoff games and a lot more revenue. Their desires are likely to be realized, as the players have no real objection to expanding the playoffs, as long as their share of revenue increases through other channels such as minimum salary, adjusting tax thresholds, and changing arbitration or free agency eligibility criteria. Expanded playoffs are too valuable a bargaining chip for the players not to cash in.

MLB owners have made no secret of their desire to expand playoffs. Last season they negotiated a 16-team format in 2020 even as the length of the regular season was reduced by over 100 games. They also proposed expanded playoffs in 2021 in exchange for adopting the designated hitter rule in both leagues, though that one never came to pass. It will take a good deal more than just the universal DH to get the players to agree to expanding the post season, as the players have a much longer wish list of items that they’d like to see as part of the next Collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which must be hashed out prior to the 2022 season.

Why? Follow the money!

Notwithstanding the objections from Giants and Dodgers’ fans, the new format has nothing to do with fairness. Instead, follow the money. MLB has negotiated new seven-year television contracts with Fox and Turner Broadcasting (TBS/ TNT) which will bring in $8.3 billion, an increase of 40 percent over the prior contracts, mostly for the right to broadcast postseason games.

ESPN plans to reduce their coverage from 90 to 100 regular season games down to 30 to 40 games per season and reduce the annual payment to MLB by $150 million, unless they can pick up some more postseason games. When the regular season was reduced to 60 games in 2020, it was the Disney-owned networks, ABC and ESPN that stepped in and carried the expanded round of playoffs.

MLB National TV revenue

Network 2014- 2021 2022 - 2028 Total Contract
Network 2014- 2021 2022 - 2028 Total Contract
TBS $ 325 M $ 535 M $3.75 Billion
Fox $ 525 M $ 729 M $5.1 Billion
ESPN $ 700 M $ 550 M* $3.85 Billion
Total $ 1.55 B $1.814 B $12.7 Billion
* proposed

Regular season games are not the huge money maker on a national basis for networks. Playoff games bring the kind of ratings that national networks crave. However, regular season games are highly valued by the regional sports networks, as we have seen soaring revenues for every MLB team over the past few decades. The other networks have not been interested in picking up the regular season games being dropped by ESPN, but MLB is negotiating deals with streaming services such as the $300 million contract signed with DAZN. That inventory of games can be monetized in ways other than with national TV networks.

What will the new playoff format look like?

When the playoffs are expanded, the format is likely to include three-game series hosted entirely by division winners or by the higher seeded wild card team(s), while one or two teams with the best records in each league have a brief first round bye before hosting the next round. The layoff caused by a bye is something that MLB has tried to avoid, but money will overcome that issue.

Various formats have been floated, from a 12-team playoff to the 14 teams proposed by MLB owners prior to the current season. I would suggest 12 teams initially, adding two more if and when MLB adds two expansion teams. That’s something else that appears to be inevitable as MLB badly wants to expand to 32 teams with four divisions in each league, like the National Football League.

Playoff expansion winners and losers

The qualifying threshold for post season play has plummeted since 1968, when the Detroit Tigers were the last team to win a World Series by winning the pennant and advancing straight to the World Series. Ten times in history, teams have won 100 plus games and not even qualified for playoffs. The 1961 Tigers won 101 games led by batting champion Norm Cash’s .361 average, but finished eight games behind the Yankees and Roger Maris’ 61 home runs. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for a team barely above .500 to make the playoffs.

The players’ association is said to be concerned that expanded playoffs would cause teams to spend less during the off season since fewer wins would be required to qualify. But teams who are on the bubble, but not quite up to the current wild card standards (2022 Detroit Tigers?), stand to benefit from playing in October or at least playing more meaningful games in September. And players on those added post season rosters stand to be paid post season shares as well.

So the stage is set for what could be the final one game elimination wild card play in games. The Dodgers may have to beat the Cardinals in order to play the Giants in the first round of the playoffs, while the Yankees and Red Sox (if they get past Toronto) will have to play each other for the right to advance to the “real” playoffs, against the Tampa Bay Rays. Enjoy it while it lasts.