Oct
30

Fixing the playoffs

By

It’s cold outside. With the temperatures in New York hovering at an unseasonable 40 degrees and the ever-present wind chill making it much, much worse. As the wind in New York howled, as Brad Lidge struck out Eric Hinske, as the Philadelphia Phillies downed the Tampa Bay Rays in a disjointed and prolonged World Series, winter finally settled upon the baseball world.

For the Yankees, this winter promises to bring change, and we’ll get to that over the next few days, weeks and months. Tonight, let’s bury the baseball season.

The last few weeks have been a trying time for many baseball fans. We’ve seen a lot of starts and stops in the playoffs. We’ve suffered through a series of mostly dull games that, outside of a seven-run Boston comeback on a day that seems like it was ages ago, left little to the imagination. While there may only be one October, this October, for the vast majority of baseball fans, failed to elicit much excitement.

For the most part, national baseball writers have focused on the World Series. Jeff Passan’s Tuesday column about the indifferent reaction to the World Series is indicative of the prevailing views. Between games that normally start too late, one game held to 10 p.m. due to a rain and another — the clincher — suspended mid-inning because Bud Selig failed to read a Doppler forecast, this World Series came off as irrelevant to baseball fans outside of Philadelphia and insulting to baseball purists.

But the truth is that this problem extends well beyond one boring World Series. This year, it extended back to a postseason that really laid bare how badly MLB sells its baseball soul to the networks. It started with five-game sets that take seven or eight calendars days to play, followed by seven-game series spread out over 10 days. Do teams really need three days off over seven games? Do we have to sit through a 2-2-1-2 format for a seven-game set and a 1-1-2-1 format for best-of-five series?

Now, while the playoffs aren’t as far gone as the baseball writers would have you believe, this format seems broken. Allow me to humbly present a few suggestions for fixing what should be the game’s crowning tournament.

First, excitement for the World Series and the playoffs has to begin well before October. It has to start with FOX and TBS’ broadcasting schedule. While New York, Chicago, LA and Boston offer big markets, baseball — and good baseball at that — exists outside of the major media markets. While it may not be in the best interest of FOX’s bottom line to broadcast the games between Tampa and the Twins, these games should be on national TV as part of an effort to promote the game of baseball. If Bud Selig and the owners didn’t negotiate contracts with FOX and TBS that allows for the national TV rights to promote the best interests of the game, then they have failed at their jobs as the game’s gatekeepers.

Second, Bud Selig has to retain more control over the postseason schedule. It simply isn’t doing anyone any favors to have sets that don’t make sense given the daily nature of the regular season. During the season, teams don’t play a game, have a day off, play another, have another day, play two, have a day off and then play again. This isn’t hockey or basketball. In baseball, the teams play every day, and the same should hold true in October. If the sport needs to schedule travel days for the Anaheim-to-Boston trips, then play a 2-2-1 set. Everyone else should be able to survive on one or no days off.

Breaking up the series simply curtails fan enthusiasm. If fans get into a game only to have to wait 48 hours for the next, they simply grow impatient and disinterested. Again, the network suits might like it, but baseball’s overall national popularity should transcend the wishes of a few rich executives.

Third — and this point is related to the second one above — start the games earlier. There is no good reason why a game between Tampa Bay and Philadelphia should start at 8:30 p.m. I understand that West Coast fans can’t see the games if they start much earlier, but an East Coast-dominated World Series will draw predominantly East Coast fans. The supporters in these two towns can’t stay up until midnight or later to watch a game, and forget about the kids.

When the Yankees were in the World Series throughout my years in high school, the games would start between 8:08 and 8:17. Over the last few years, FOX has inserted a creep into the broadcast, and for once I’m not talking about Joe Buck. Every year, the first pitch is later and later. This practice should end. Games should start at 7:30 p.m. local time. I doubt ratings would dip that much if at all. The game should be more accessible for the fans.

Fourth, in a rather dismaying exchange, Bud Selig expressed his desires for more October day games but says that the networks flat-out said no. This is a completely wrongheaded approach to baseball. If Selig wants day games, if everyone else wants day games, if no one wants to sit outside on a cold night in 38-degree weather, then schedule some day games. While FOX is well within their rights to say no — they did, as David Pinto points out, after all, pay for night games — baseball should hold the line the next time they can and demand day games from whoever is paying. Again, it’s for the good of the game.

And finally, I can’t leave out good old New York. In the annals of American society, New York holds a special place these days. While for a few months in 2001, Americans rallied around New York, we’re once again the city too good for the rest of the country. Everyone hates us, and that’s the way we like it.

To that end, the playoffs need the Yankees. It’s no coincidence that the Yankees draw the highest TV ratings; baseball fans need someone to root against as much as they need someone to root for. When that someone to root against is also from the country’s most arrogant and insufferable city, even better. Baseball shouldn’t root against the Yankees.

Now, granted that final point is a rather contrived conceit. I want to see the Yankees in the playoffs every year no matter what, but there is some truth in it. The Yanks are a draw. But the playoffs should be a draw no matter what. If they weren’t exciting this year, if they’ve gotten less compelling as time marches on, then something is wrong not with the games or with the fans but with the system. It’s time to fix it.

Categories : Playoffs
  • GG

    Attendance is thru the roof. Profits rise. But baseball is a regional game when it comes down to it and unless a series goes 7 games ratings will not be there.

    The Super Bowl has one game. It is an event. The Series has 7 games. It’s like comparing apples and oranges.

    And night games are fine but why can’t they start at 7pm? Starting at 845 is ridiculous.

  • Infamous

    Have the playofffs always had all these days off or is this relatively new? How was it formatted back in the 60′s?

  • http://www.riveraveblues.com Mike A.

    I don’t see any reason why a five game series couldn’t be played in five days, or why a 7 game series couldn’t be played in 7 days. Give the teams one day off between rounds, and that’s it. It’ll shorten the playoff calender, but more importantly, it’ll reward the team with the most depth. The team with the deeper rotation and better bullpen and more effective bench will earn the title.

    • RichYF

      I agree here. I’d say 5 games in 6 days and 7 in 8, but basically yeah. The 800 days between I think it was either the first and second rounds or the second round and the WS (or both) was ridiculous. Teams were sitting around for 5 days.

      The other thing that annoys me is the lack of decision making that occurs. If you KNOW you have an off-day tomorrow, you’ll throw your whole bullpen out there. What ever happened to managing? Like you said, DEEP teams win in the regular season. If we could put Mo out there for 2 innings and bring starters back on “short” rest that’s really not that short, then what the hell is the point of the regular season? 162 games of agony and then you get your whole team for every game. Silly if you ask me.

      • http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/CRsmithT1.jpg tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Mr. Snarky Irrelevant Non Sequitur Jones

        I agree with both of you. Not only will eliminating off days keep fans more interested by making it a nightly (or daily on the weekends) ritual, I’d imagine that if you eliminated off days, you’d force teams to play some inferior players (like 4th and 5th starters) and fatigue the great ones to a degree where some teams that might have been swept could steal a game or two, and prolong the series.

        Fewer off days = more Game 6′s and 7′s.

    • Count Zero

      You’ll have to bring back the greenies for that. :-)

      But yes, I agree. I have always thought it unfortunate that a game which emphasizes consistency and the depth of a 25 man roster during the regular season, throws that emphasis out the window in the postseason and rewards the team with the best 18 man roster.

  • pat

    Its sad that networks decide when games start as opposed to the league itself. Kinda strikes at the core of what is wrong with sports today, it’s all about the benjamins, not the game.

  • ManBearPig2.0

    In the age of Tivo, XM, and mlb.tv it shouldn’t be a problem for west coast fans to catch the first inning or two of east coast games. I live in CA and that’s how I have to follow most Yankee games. Move the playoff games all the way up to 7pm!

  • r.w.g.

    it might also not be a terrible idea to think about reducing the number of games played in the regular season. i personally can’t see it happening because attendance revenue is so important.. but it would certainly help prevent the postseason from pushing so close to november.

    • Marsha

      Next year it will be in November as noted earlier this week. Imagine if teams from the northern climes are in the World Series, such as NY, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. It’s going to be hella cold sitting in the stands rooting for your team to win when you have to keep your hands in your pockets to keep them warm. Get me one of those baseball caps with the earflaps.

  • Mark B

    If MLB eliminates any regular seasons games, they need to correct the unbalanced schedule which has had the Yanks traveling twice to Seattle and Chicago the past few years….

  • Brett

    I agree there are too many days off. Teams can employ 4 man rotations and even 3 in spread series, when you really need 4-5 good starters to get there. It becomes a different game in the postseason and isn’t right.

  • Nickel

    The best way to bring back World Series excitement? All World Series games should be just 3 innings long! :-)

  • Tripp

    Why not shorten the season. This can be done without shortening the schedule. Two Sundays each month have doubleheaders. That would allow the season to be shortened by two or three weeks. It may allow for a few more off days to slip into the season as well.

    Just sayin.

  • Bo

    There’s nothing wrong with the playoffs when your team wins.

    • KW

      Well said!

    • RobC

      There is if your team wins and it is too late for you and/or your son to watch

  • Ehren

    I think some discussion should go into adding a second wild card spot for a one-game play-off. I think the current play-off schedule doesn’t give the division winner enough of an advantage. Sure, they get to play one extra day at home–if the series goes all five games. But is that enough?

    The one game play-off would be a great draw for baseball. It would also afford the division winner a bit more of an edge: instead of facing the opposing team’s best pitcher twice, they would only have to see him once.

    I think as the last two years have shown us, these one-game play-offs are exciting for baseball fans. Regardless, I think some simple tweaking like starting the games earlier and introducing more teams during the Game of the Week would go a long way in improving ratings and rekindling interest in baseball.

    • Steve S

      I think they should also contemplate giving the Wild Card team less home games in the first round. That would also help with the travel/ tv schedules. Do a 3-1-1 set in the first round. The first three games with no days off and perhaps no days off in between game 4 & 5.

    • HoraceClarke

      A better solution – get rid of the wild card and the three-division setup entirely. Create two eight-team divisions in the NL and two seven-team divisions in the AL. The two division winners play a best of seven for the league championships and the winners meet in the World Series. This formula worked well enough between 1969 and 1993 and the previous setup, eight- or ten-team leagues with the pennant winners meeting in the World Series worked for nearly 100 years.

      The wild card is just a gimmick to create an additional playoff round for which MLB can demand huge broadcast rights fees. It’s an insult to the integrity of the regular season competition. After 162 games you don’t need an extended post-season tournament to determine a champion. The wild card destroys something that made baseball special – the pennant races. As it is now there can never be a true pennant race between two outstanding teams since the loser will most often qualify for the wild card. The over-hyped competition for the WC is just a battle of also rans.

      To those suggesting that too many teams would be out of contention too soon without the WC and 4-6 team divisions I suggest studying your baseball history. There were many instances of multiple teams contending up until the final month in the old 8- or 10-team leagues (1964 NL anyone?) or 6-team divisions. In addition, the larger divisions would largely preclude some of the weak division winners we see in the three-division setup with the unbalanced schedule which is often used to justify the WC.

  • Steve S

    Good post. Great ppoint about regular season national games focusing more on National markets.

    I think they should contemplate scheduling at least one day Saturday game in the ALCS, NLCS and the World Series. I know the inventory is not worth as much but it would do so much to promote the series and game 3 or 4′s that fall on a weekend dont get that much attention anyway. Might as well allow for one game that younger kids can enjoy.

    I also think that in September they should allow flex schedules or force FOX to carry games nationally- in all markets- of games with pennant implications. If the Yankees have locked up a spot or are out of by September 29 then that shouldnt be the FOX Saturday afternoon game. It should be the Dbacks and Marlins fighting for the wild card. Everyone loves watching games that have high impact and immediate consequences.

    Baseball has to accept that it will never get Superbowl like ratings. They should market to their fans and hope that casual observers will be convinced to watch.

  • Sam P.

    I know the players’ union will say no, but why not schedule one DH’er per month? Over 6 months that’s a full week. The playoffs could start right at the beginning of October and for some of the teams in colder areas, one week could make a difference in the weather (at least a little).

    • JohnnyC

      This has nothing to do with the players’ union. The owners do not want to give fans two games for the price of one. Simple as that.

      • http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/CRsmithT1.jpg tommiesmithjohncarlos a/k/a Mr. Snarky Irrelevant Non Sequitur Jones

        Make it a day night doubleheader. You still get two gates, just one in the afternoon and one in the evening.

  • CountryClub

    There’s no sense in complaining about something that’s never going to change. TV pays a mint to televise these games, and as long as they continue to do that, they will control what time the games start. Why waste time bitching about something that is set in stone. I dont see what the big deal is anyway. The Philly fans, the ones who stayed until 1am last Saturday and the ones who froze last night, sure seemed to be enjoying themselves. It’s a regional game and ratings will hurt because of that. One of the best things that could happen is that networks will realize they need to stop throwing hundreds of millions of dollars away to televise these games. After that happens maybe baseball will have more control over when the games start.

    • steve (different one)

      There’s no sense in complaining about something that’s never going to change.

      well, it could change.

      Fox doesn’t own the rights to the playoffs forever. at some point, their contract will expire and another network may be willing to make changes.

      nothing is set in stone as you say.

      • CountryClub

        I’d like to think you’re right. But if Fox bows out, someone else will take their place (see TBS). Maybe the best thing will be when the day comes that all the playoff games are broadcast on MLB’s own channel.

    • JohnnyC

      In the three-way battle among fans, networks, and owners, the interests of fans (or even the integrity of the game itself) are an afterthought. We are approaching a time when concerns about a national audience will become obsolete as MLB moves itself entirely to a pay cable/VOD solution. Baseball has always been a regional sport (made more so by the deeply ingrained petty jealousies among the franchises…exacerbated by the worst commissioner in the history of the game) and the numbers just don’t add up for Selig’s dream vision of an NFL-type TV bonanza. He’s got the marketing all wrong. Instead of flattening out the MLB landscape, he should be doing his damndest to make sure his biggest markets/franchises populate the post-season every single year. Losing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles hurts the bottom line infintely more than excluding the likes of Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and, yes, Tampa Bay from the playoff feeding trough. It’s not fair maybe from a pure sports perspective but it’s a proven business plan.

    • HoraceClarke

      TV networks pay for post-season rights what MLB demands of them and set the start times in order to recoup their outlay and make a profit. I’m sure they also want the most eyeballs they can get on their promos for upcoming shows on their network. I’m not really defending the networks here but it’s not like they’re putting a gun to Selig’s head. There’s nothing stopping him from making a deal for less money in return for flexibility on start-times or an occasional day-time World Series game. OK, nothing except the lynch mob of team owners that would surely form if he had the audacity to pursue such a thing.

      However, there is reason to hope. If fan and media pressure were able to break the logjam between MLB and the MLBPA on the PED issue then there’s no reason that the same approach could not work with respect to post-season scheduling.

      It’s obvious that Selig and MLB will never take these steps on their own even if it’s in “the best interests of the game”. Pressure will have to come form the fans and media. Baseball was setting attendance and broadcast rights fee records all through the steroid era so that’s not an excuse for inaction on the post-season scheduling front either. The low ratings for this year’s WS and coverage of the bumbled handling of Games 3 and 5 could provide an opening if any one in the baseball media would pick up the ball and run with it. However, interest seems to be lacking so far.

  • Matt K

    Great article I honestly can’t stand the playoffs when the yankees aren’t involved.
    The baseball season stresses the importance of a deep roster especially in the bullpen but with the playoffs spread out over 10 days in 7 game seasons its not the same. Everyone can pitch basically everygame, some might see this as a good thing I do not. But i dont know if I would be so concerned if the yankees were in it.

  • Jeremy

    The playoffs will never be “fixed” until the standards of the hypothetical “casual fan” reach the level of the commenters on blogs like this.

    As long as major networks keep running out hacks like Buck, McCarver, and Morgan (and they keep winning Sports Emmys), rely more on graphics and sound effects than insightful analysis, assume that their average viewer is complacent and not especially bright, and are satisfied with the ratings, we will keep getting baseball broadcasts targeted to the lowest common denominator that do not take the fans’ best interests to heart.

  • RobC

    Ben,
    I agree with the points you make
    The late start times are a big problem.
    Some PR by MLB on the small market play-off teams would help.
    In 1993 it was the Blue Jays againsts the “Renegade Phillies”. That sounded good.
    Commerical content is a problem too.
    My 11 y/o got a good laugh out of “make sure your heart is healthy enough for sexual activity”
    I wonder were the players union stands on those issues which make the play-off suck. Would have been great to see the players call the game last Monday.
    No point helping to make a mockery of the game while risking injury.