Wednesday was an interesting day for baseball fans. As the second day of the 2020 Postseason, it was also the only day with all 16 playoff teams in action. The March Madness of baseball. There was excitement throughout the slate with the Braves starting the day by outlasting the Reds in a 13-inning pitching duel that remained scoreless for four and a half hours and the Yankees wrapping it up by scoring two runs in the ninth off of Brad Hand to take the lead for good in a rain-soaked marathon slugfest.
So why was it an “interesting” day for baseball and not a great day? Because it looks like Rob Manfred is using the COVID-19 crisis to make the 16-team bonanza a permanent part of the baseball calendar. You can tell by the way MLB is pushing the expanded postseason as the wave of the future. You can tell by the way the media got a little excited about the national pastime for the first time since 1998. There were Wild Card game on network television, for goodness’s sake. Here’s the official hype video for the playoffs.
REMIX! “Same game, whole new attitude.” Can you tell that MLB is trying to be hip and cool like the NBA? One way to be like the NBA is to reduce the meaning of the regular season that’s not moving the needle anyway by letting half the teams in the playoffs, allowing for more national TV games and more revenue. As much as the promo feels like another iteration of the Steve Buscemi “hello fellow kids” meme, the way it links baseball’s hot young stars to the expanded format is clever advertising.
I agree with those that want baseball to return to “normal” in 2021. With a shortened season, the 16-game format made more sense because there wasn’t enough time for the elite teams to run away and hide from the underdogs. With a full 162-game schedule? Could the Dodgers have clinched in late August? Plus, it’s not like there are bye weeks or other incentives other than home-field advantage for division leaders to keep plugging away once they’ve assured themselves a playoff spot.
That’s bad news for fans, but I’m not sure that it’s bad news for baseball, and that’s why I think this 16-game dance has a good chance of sticking. The old September pennant races created excitement on a local basis, but I don’t think that led to better ratings for nationally televised games, especially with those going up against football. Exciting pennant races are great for fans, but not necessarily great for MLB’s coffers.
Anytime there’s a difference between what fans like and what makes the league money, there is going to be disappointment. Again we go back to the NBA comparison since MLB is trying to emulate it with its player-driven ratings and market-proof Finals match-ups. In the NBA, no one watches in March and early April. The Association just concedes the entire month of March to college hoops and doesn’t even try to promote the race for the final playoff spots. As long as LeBron James and other stars clinch playoff bids, they can rest up down the stretch and help the league make money once the real action begins.
That’s where I think baseball is going. Why even try promoting Sunday Night Baseball in September when the NFL will dominate no matter what? Just get the Dodgers and Yankees in the postseason and have them get nice and healthy to drive October ratings. The casual fans will love that since they are focused on football every September and are fine returning to baseball in October. The real loser are the hard-core baseball fans that keeps MLB afloat year after year despite “baseball is dying” stories with their unwavering support. These are the people that MLB risks disappointing.
Unfortunately, it’s not much of a risk because hardcore fans will hang around through thick and thin, which gives incentive for leagues like MLB to side with the casual fans and the dollars every time. Hopefully 2021 will be an exception, but I’m not counting on it.