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  • Writer's pictureJack Vita

MLB playoff expansion may be coming in 2022, MLB reups with ESPN through 2028

Major League Baseball extended its television partnership with ESPN Thursday, with both parties agreeing to an extension through the 2028 season, according to Awful Announcing.

The extension will keep Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN for the next seven years. However, ESPN will no longer be televising any additional MLB regular season games, dropping its annual number of broadcasts from 90 to 30. Naturally, baseball's critics will use this as evidence to support their claim that the sport is dying, but it's a little more complicated than that.

Major League Baseball has been dominating in the local markets. In a COVID year where other sports and television programs saw a decrease in ratings, MLB viewership went up in 2020. In a 162-game season, fans make a habit of watching their team play on their local network nearly every night. ESPN didn't want to drop MLB's midweek games from its programming and in fact, the network was vying for exclusive rights to those games. ESPN had previously shared partial rights to the sport's midweek games with local television networks that carry each team's games. Given the choice between a hometown broadcast and a national one, most fans typically choose their hometown one, thus hurting the numbers ESPN was accumulating. When ESPN was told that it wouldn't be able to obtain exclusive rights to midweek games, it backed out. Jomboy from Jomboy Media provided a helpful recap of the new deal, highlighting MLB's prominence in local markets.

In the meantime, MLB will continue talks as it looks for a partner to carry midweek games on a national level.

The most interesting facet of the extension however is that it will include more playoff games for ESPN, if more playoff games become available. Awful Announcing suggested that if Major League Baseball switches its Wild Card round to a best of three series, ESPN will carry the games. It remains unclear however if this means that MLB will revert back to its 16-team playoff field after its trial run in 2020, or if the current field of ten would remain the same, only moving a one game elimination Wild Card round to a best of three series. Or, perhaps there could be a moderate expansion that lies somewhere in between. Nevertheless, it sure sounds like the league office is going to push hard for more playoff games when it meets with the MLB Players Association for a new collective bargaining agreement this winter.

It makes sense. More postseason games is going to make more money for the league, but MLB should be careful about expanding its postseason and muddying its playoff field. Making the current Wild Card round a best of three series would be a natural way to add more postseason games; I don't think many fans would take exception to that. Expanding the Division Series from a best of 5 to a best of 7 series would also accomplish this goal, and in some regards, take away from the general flukiness that comes in a shortened playoff series. This would be a welcome change for most baseball fans, I would think.

Statistically, Major League Baseball has been crushing the National Basketball Association in the local markets. It's really not close. One of the reasons why baseball does so well is because its regular season means something. Historically, for a team to reach the World Series, it had to have the best regular season record in its league. That was it; there were no other playoffs. As the sport has added more teams, it has properly adjusted, expanding its postseason to proportionately fit the size of the league. One third of the league gets to play baseball past the first weekend of October; that's it. It's an exclusive club, as it should be. It's a celebration of excellence, not mediocrity. Last year 16 of 30 teams made it to the postseason. That's 53%; more than half of the league!

As a result, a 29-31 Houston Astros team came one win away from reaching the World Series. Ideally you want the sport's best teams remaining at the end. It makes little sense to play a full 162-game season, and run the risk of losing a 100-win team in a best of 3 series to a 78-win team that finished fourth place in its division and had no business making the playoffs. One of the greatest criticisms I hear regularly regarding the NBA, is that it's regular season feels mostly meaningless. The sport's best players regularly skip games so that they will be well-rested for the postseason.

In baseball, the regular season matters. When the Red Sox and Yankees meet for four-game series' in July, there are serious implications. The division is on the line. Win the division, and you're a lock for the ALDS. Fall in to a Wild Card spot, and your fate lies in the hands of your best pitcher, who will probably only be able to pitch one game in the Division Series, if the team advances. As it is set up right now, there's an incentive to go for it and win as many games as you can. There's a reason why the Yankees will likely once again be making moves at the trade deadline to give themselves the best chance to win the AL East. In a 16-team playoff format, all that matters is getting in. Sure, having home field advantage is nice, but it doesn't carry the same weight as avoiding a do-or-die Wild Card game does. As a result, I think an expanded playoff field would result in less urgency from the league's best teams in the regular season. There would be less urgency to win their division, and when there's less urgency to win a division, there ends up being less animosity and contentiousness between teams vying for a division title. I believe this sport is at its best when teams such as the Red Sox and Yankees, or the Cubs and Cardinals genuinely dislike each other. The rivalries make for great entertainment.

Lately I've been hearing a lot from the league office concerning "anti-competitiveness" and "tanking". Even with some of the sport's worst teams still doing relatively well in the local television markets, Major League Baseball and its press continues to harp on the sport's "tanking" problem. After the Astros and the Cubs won World Series titles after tearing down their organizations and having a full-scale rebuild from the ground up, more teams seem to be following a similar model. Conventional wisdom throughout the 2000s was that you could fix a bad ballclub by signing free agents and making splashy offseason acquisitions. After a number of high-priced free agents failed to live up to expectations, and the Oakland A's and Tampa Bay Rays found success in two of the league's smallest markets, we've seen more teams shedding payroll, instead of adding to their payroll. Critics have labeled this as "tanking", a strategy used regularly in the NFL and NBA in which front offices actively try to lose games, in hopes of securing high draft picks that can help steer the franchise into the right direction. Tanking doesn't exist in baseball, though.

Major League Baseball organizations aren't actively trying to lose games. Having the first overall pick in the MLB Amateur Draft isn't too different from buying a lottery ticket. NBA and NFL prospects are more of a sure-thing and typically have a greater impact. There are top ten picks in every year's MLB Draft that fail to reach the Major League level. Instead, the rebuilding model in baseball is to sell players with value to contending teams, and secure as many high-upside minor league prospects as possible. Teams aren't actively trying to lose, but as a result of this method, they typically do lose quite a few games during their rebuilding process. But this isn't any different from any other sport, is it? The NBA has a 16-team playoff format, and with it, an even greater tanking problem. Worse, the regular season has become mostly meaningless. It's very stale. Expanding the MLB postseason will generate more interest in the markets of fringe playoff teams, but I fear that over time, it would also make the sport's regular season meaningless and unimportant, which would in the long run, lose the interest of fans and make the sport less popular.

To be clear, I wouldn't be opposed to MLB expanding its playoff field, I just think it should expand its league first.

I'm also not sure ESPN is the best partner for Major League Baseball. The worldwide leader has spent the greater part of the last decade cutting down on baseball coverage (entirely cutting Baseball Tonight from its programming), while hyping up its other partners, the NBA and the NFL. On Opening Day this year, there was little mention of the blooming MLB season. Instead, talk of the NFL Draft (which was four weeks out from that point) dominated the airwaves, and baseball was left on the backburner. ESPN carried Opening Day games all day long, and it didn't broadcast the season's opening pitch. The first pitch of the 2021 season occurred during a commercial break. ESPN would never miss the tip of an NBA game, or the kickoff of an NFL game. Clearly baseball isn't a priority for the worldwide leader and I think there are better partners for the league. For the longest time, ESPN controlled a lot of the conversations that happen in sports. It had the power to elevate certain sports, neglect others, and heavily influence the sports fan's thoughts and interests. I don't believe ESPN is as powerful as it once was, but the network has done little to prop up Major League Baseball in recent years. Instead, its talking heads have resorted to the lazy, "baseball is dying" take. Does that sound like a good partner to you?

Finding a new partner for midweek games that has a greater interest and investment in the sport could do a lot of good for baseball in the long run. It sounds like a digital streaming service could be in play for the midweek games. We'll see. MLB is still working out the fine details of its likely extensions with Fox and Turner as well. There should be more to come soon.

For more sports and entertainment analysis, follow me on Twitter @JackVitaShow, and subscribe to the Jack Vita Show on iTunes or wherever podcasts are found.

(Image via ESPN)


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