In his latest column, Tom Verducci offers a solution to “fix” major league baseball’s playoff system. The only problem, however, is he provides no evidence to suggest that it is broken.
The thrust of Verducci’s argument is that because the NFL is dominating media attention in September, MLB should expand its playoff format in attempt to compete for headlines and sound bites. For some reason, media types always seem preoccupied by the importance of the buzz they create. Just because the NFL generates more national media attention doesn’t mean the game is more popular. Baseball is and has always been a regional sport. Interest is generated on a local level, not by national media outlets seeking to promote their rights holdings.
Another factor that accounts for why an NFL preseason game seems to be more popular than a pennant race baseball game is because of scarcity. There are only 20 games per team in the NFL. Baseball teams play that many in three weeks. Clearly, the incentive to watch every NFL game is much greater, so it is only natural that the ratings will be much higher.
Every NFL game has the feeling of being self-contained, with the stand-alone quality of say a movie as opposed to the serial quality of a baseball series. Baseball games rise to that level of urgency when they are ‘ultimate’ games.” – Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated, September 7, 2010
Baseball’s strength is its 162 game schedule. Following a team throughout the season comes with an ebb and flow, much like life itself. There are very few short bursts that absolutely demand attention. Although Verducci may think that’s a bad thing, it’s actually baseball’s greatest asset. The number one reason baseball has exploding revenues is because the sport finally learned to leverage the 162 game schedule. Baseball’s massive inventory of games is a boon in a time when media outlets are starving for content. From satellite radio to local RSNs to MLBAM’s on-line initiatives, baseball’s growth has been fueled by its ability to fill the airwaves and the internet. Would it be fair to compare both sports on metrics like total attendance, total viewers and the number of fans who fly across country to watch exhibition games? Of course not…so why do so many keep judging MLB on terms that clearly favor the NFL?
Now, just because MLB is doing very well, aside from and relative to the NFL, doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made. In his column, Verducci does advance one proposal that he thinks would make the game better: having two wild cards per league engage in a one game playoff to advance to the LDS.
One underlying reason for the proposal is to boost September buzz, but as we’ve already discussed, that is not only unnecessary, but potentially damaging to the integrity of the 162 game schedule. Just ask the NBA and NHL about the impact of expanded playoff structures on interest in the regular season.
The second motivation for the proposal, however, has some merit: the need to place an emphasis on winning the division. Although MLB would be wise to pursue this end, the aforementioned suggestion would cause more harm than good. Take this year, for example. Under Verducci’s plan, the Yankees and Rays, who are both assured of a playoff spot, would have a greater incentive to play all out in September. That is undeniable. However, think about the other ramifications. Let’s assume that with three games to go the Red Sox have the second wild card spot wrapped up, while the Rays are still locked in a battle with the Yankees. Under this scenario, the loser of the Yankees/Rays battle could wind up with their third or fourth best pitcher on the mound in a one game playoff against a rested John Lester. In other words, they would be penalized for trying to win the division.
Another cause for concern with expanding the playoffs is you increase the chances of an undeserving team winning the World Series. The point of a 162 game schedule is not to have weaker teams sneak into the playoffs. On the contrary, the marathon that is the baseball season is designed to weed out those teams. Is it really worth sacrificing this integrity for a couple of “ultimate games” and added media attention? I don’t think so. Hopefully, Bud Selig feels the same way.
For whatever reason, baseball executives, writers, fans, players, etc. suffer from excessive hand wringing when it comes to evaluating their sport. Baseball is a wildly popular game that takes a back to seat to no sport. Just because the NFL has found a formula that combines reality TV, gambling and athletics doesn’t mean MLB should resort to similar gimmicks.