Did you see the numbers TBS scored with its coverage of the postseason play-in between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins? The late afternoon game was the most watched MLB tiebreaker game since 1998, with 6,543,000 total viewers. More importantly, the game was the most watched regular season game on broadcast or cable during the 2009 season. Numbers in every category, every demo were up which leads to two very questions, with two, not so complex, answers:
• Why did the game draw so well?
• And, how can MLB and their television partners capitalize on this?
The game drew well very simply because it was an ultimate game. All or nothing. Do or die. One for all the marbles. Sudden death. Win or go home. Winner takes all. Live free or die. Any sports cliché you want to attach to this game go ahead, but it all comes down to the fact this game meant something, NOW.
No “best-of fives” or “best-of-sevens” this was one game, between two mid-America, mid-market teams, without huge names, without huge payrolls, and without a widespread national following. But, it had an enormous sense of urgency. And, as much as it pains me to say it, it was like football.
That answers the first question, the second question requires some work but it needs to be done, for the league, for the networks, and, believe it or not, this works for the fans as well. I suggest not eliminating the Wild Card, but adding a second one.
For those of you who are baseball purists please understand that the Wild Card has brought the additional level of parity that have kept teams in the running until late in the season and therefore kept attendance climbing. Wild Cards are good for everybody involved…as long as they don’t water down the value of the postseason (hello, NBA!). So how do you add a Wild Card, but maintain the integrity of the existing rounds of the postseason?
Create a one game play-in.
One of the problems that exists under the current system is that Wild Card teams have pretty much the same opportunity to win the Series as Divisional winners, minus home-field advantage during the first two rounds (the All-Star game determines World Series home field). The 2008 Series was a rarity in that two division winners played each other. The last time that happened was in 2001. In every other Series since a Wild Card represented one of the leagues except in 2002 when both teams were Wild Cards.
Why does that happen? One reason is that all the teams started the postseason on equal footing including the Wild Card team.
If there were two Wild Cards from each league and they were forced to meet in a one-game play-in game, life on Earth as we know it would change. Had that been the case this year, one day’s rest following the last day of the season, we would have seen, Texas visit Boston’s Fenway Park and the Giants head to Colorado for an ultimate game. The winner moves on to the League Division Series the next day, the losers start making tee times.
All four teams are forced to use their best pitchers on their 25-man postseason roster, putting them at an immediate disadvantage to the divisional winners who get the extra day of rest to set up their rotations. Baseball fans get to see two great games and develop a familiarity with some players they may not know as their postseason appetites are whet by this spectacular double appetizer. I support that with the fact that this year the first day of the TBS postseason coverage was the most-watched day since 2005.
Add to this the reduction of “meaningless” September games. A meaningless game is one played between two teams eliminated from postseason consideration. In each league this year five teams would have been battling for the two Wild Card slots adding to the excitement of the end of the season, while still not diluting the existing postseason package.
Would my change provide different results? I’m not sure. What I am sure of is that it would be better for the fans (who would get the tension of more “ultimate” games), better for the networks (greater tension, another pair of games to cover), better for individual teams (more teams would stay involved deeper into the season and two more teams have a chance to win it all), and better for baseball in general (more excitement, and definitely more revenue).
I do subscribe to the theorem “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” but the current playoff system “is broke” and needs to be fixed. Too many sweeps and one-sided matches and too many equal advantages for the Wild Card teams produce League Dull Series and reduces the engagement of the fans for the League Championship Series. I truly believe I have offered a do-able solution.
Bill Chuck is a regular contributor to NESN and NESN.com and is available at Bill@billy-ball.com or by calling 617-566-2784.