It’s the most argumentive time of the year!
Or at least, that’s what Andy Williams would have sung if he was singing about MLB’s Wildcard games. Between 1994 and 2011, the American League and the National League offered one wildcard team each to enter the playoffs. Under this model, each league would have an even number four teams in the postseason.
Since 2012, each league has offered two wildcard teams. Both of which play in a one-game playoff, and the winner moves on to the divisional series. This gets fans undies in a bunch because MLB is organized into series’, and not individual games. The idea of a one-game winner-take-all (not being a game 5 or game 7) is inconsistent with MLB’s structure.
Here is the thing: wildcard games get stellar ratings. It is dramatic, and fans show up. This puts the foot in the door of another question: should playoffs expand even more? I argue it should, but I have to explain this in pieces.
As of September 29, 2021, two AL divisions are clinched, the third might as well be, and yet there are still four teams playing meaningful must-watch games with the playoffs on the line. One of these teams is the Yankees. This is good for baseball. My overarching point is the following: baseball is a very regional sport; so expanded playoffs give more teams/cities/fanbases a reason to care. When fans care, they put butts in seats, eyeballs on screens, and money flowing. This is not good for baseball, it is fantastic.
Important point: I am arguing for the *concept* of expanded playoffs, not necessarily for the current particular structure. I believe these are two separate arguments.
“But they don’t deserve to be in the playoffs”
Says who? You on the couch?
I find this critique often comes from big market fans of teams like the Yankees and Dodges who are consistently in the playoffs. I believe this to be a very narrow-minded and gatekeeping argument that doesn’t consider the greater economics of baseball. If you use this argument, remember: nobody cares about your almighty opinion of who YOU think is worthy.
“But they will never win the World Series”
Probably not, but who cares. Selling the hope of witnessing something special is enough to get fans excited enough to spend money. Being an 80 win team and squeaking into the playoffs will make the team and baseball more money than not being in the playoffs at all. No logical fan would actively choose not to watch their team in the playoffs because they don’t feel they will ultimately win 3+ rounds later. If a team is in the playoffs, fans will show up because maybe…just maybe…there is a chance.
“I would rather my team not be in the playoffs than settle for an expanded playoff spot”
Then you are not a die-hard fan if you do not show up (or turn on the TV) when the odds are stacked against you.
“What if the first place/big-market teams lose in the first round?”
Yes, upsets happen. There is always a risk of the best team losing in the first round of the playoffs in every game/series of every playoff in every sport. Stop acting like this is new. If anything, a top-seeded team playing an even lower playoff seed increases the chances of winning the first round, therefore, increasing the number of home games they will play.
Also, more playoff spots mean teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, and Cardinals have a greater chance of making the playoffs. Even if an underachieving Yankees team barely gets into the wildcard (like what might happen in 2021), a low-seeded Yankees team will draw bigger money than that same team not making the playoffs at all. We all know MLB drools over the chance to put the Yankees and Dodgers in meaningful games.
More playoff teams/rounds will equal more money and fan interest. That money will come from ticket sales, TV advertising, merchandise, food, public transportation, and overall awareness. This is great for growing the game because it can give smaller market fans a reason to care because their team has something more to realistically earn. The only person who gets hurt by expanded playoffs is myopic people’s feelings.
Consider this: NFL, NHL, and NBA all have larger playoff pools than MLB…and NFL just expanded their bracket AGAIN. In 2021, the Seattle Mariners can end the longest playoff drought in MLB. After 20 years of Mariners fans not having a reason to care, they might finally have the chance to gather for a party, share the joy with their kids/friends/coworkers, and open the door for more excitement and interest in the future. That is playing the long game, and not something MLB does particularly well.
But Wait! There is More!
There is still something important that I have not mentioned yet. I do not think we should expand the playoffs any more than we have currently until we get more expansion teams. This way, we can have more teams in the playoffs, without a larger percentage of MLB making the playoffs. I have a realistic plan for this, but you will have to wait for next time…
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main image credit: Embed from Getty Images