American sports have long been uniquely focused on postseason outcomes over regular season success, though any tweaks to playoff structure were once largely about rewarding the appropriate number of teams.
That idea started changing nearly a decade ago as tweaks came to the NCAA Tournament (going from 65 to 68 teams in 2011) and Major League Baseball (adding the Wild Card Game in 2012), then the four-team College Football Playoff following the 2014 regular season. These changes came in part due to competition level — especially at the collegiate level. But more so, these were tweaks made with an eye on television audiences, and maximizing ad dollars from broadcasting these all-important postseason games.
While nothing is confirmed as of yet, Major League Baseball could pursue the most radical idea yet for a U.S. professional sports postseason — and the ideas seem (smartly) made for TV audiences.
The New York Post was first to report the potential switch, which could take effect as soon as 2022. Expanding the postseason from five to seven teams per league is the most glaring change in terms of how it alters the playoff landscape, and that itself would be a boost to TV revenues with a larger number of fan bases (and DMAs) directly involved in the outcome. But the unique and most interesting aspect comes from the “Selection Sunday”-type aspects that create immediately compelling narratives around each postseason matchup.
According to the Post’s Joel Sherman, the new format would give the team with the best record in each league a bye into the Divisional Round, then have the next two division winners and top wild card team host a three-game wild card series. The opponents would be the bottom three wild card teams — but it’s not that simple.
Under the plan, MLB wants teams to “draft” their opponent for the best-of-three series. This process would start with the second best division winner, then the third and the first wild card squad. So teams aren’t beholden to the standings that could yield a bad matchup for them, necessarily. Instead, winning. more games provides more self-determination.
As noted, the proceedings do take on a Selection Sunday feel, to borrow from the NCAA Tournament’s method of announcing the bracket before the event starts every March. For reference, that event had over 164 million TV ad impressions on CBS last year, per always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv. While the NCAA Tournament is incredibly popular, an event like this for Major League Baseball seems poised to draw even greater numbers.
Along with larger fan bases for MLB teams than college basketball programs, picking the opponent you’d most want to face takes on an immediate “grudge match” feel. It’s reality TV, to an extent — playing up personal slights, inferiority complexes and drama as narratives for what’s coming next.
The New York Post, CBS and numerous others have played out potential scenarios for how this would’ve worked last year given the standings. But for the audience here, it’s best to see it in action. First, here are the National League’s top seven teams from last year:
- Los Angeles Dodgers (106-56) *division winner
- Atlanta Braves (97-65) *division winner
- St. Louis Cardinals (91-71) *division winner
- Washington Nationals (93-69)
- Milwaukee Brewers (89-73)
- New York Mets (86-76)
- Arizona Diamondback (85-77)
Here, the Dodgers get the bye to the divisional round, meanwhile the Braves, Cardinals and Nats all host three-game wild card series. If they were simply seeded, the Braves would’ve had to face a streaking (to end the year) D-Backs club, and the Cards would’ve been up against a Mets team that went 48-29 since the All-Star Break. Under this selection process instead, either could’ve opted for the Brewers — who lost three straight to end the year — or the squad they felt they matched up best with over a three-game series.
This not only creates a captive audience for a selection show AND additional three-game playoff series that weren’t there before, but also more captive audiences at the close of the season too.
When looking at the standings above, there’s bunching toward the bottom with the Brewers, Mets and Diamondbacks separated by a total of four games. Below those teams, the Chicago Cubs also won 84 games and the Philadelphia Phillies won 81. In a scenario where just five teams make the playoffs, those squads at the end have little reason to be invested in the late-season results. But with seven playoff spots, there’s new motivation for everyone to play through the schedule in meaningful games (that fans will watch in-person or on TV). It also creates a premium on finishing with the top wild card spot, as is already the case in the current format.
Last year, $652 million were spent by brands advertising during the MLB Playoffs, including the World Series (according to iSpot). That came during a total of 37 games. This new format could provide a maximum of 59 games, versus the current max. of 43 right now. That’s an impressive jump in potential TV revenues, especially when considering how many of those games would be (typically high-viewership) elimination games.
Understandably players and some purists aren’t necessarily huge fans of the potential shift from a competitive standpoint. And this baseball fan is also a bit torn. On the one hand, my own team — the typically downtrodden Mets — would’ve made the playoffs two additional times in the past decade, and barely missed a few more. On the other, does more teams potentially dilute championships if it becomes significantly harder for the best regular season teams to win it all?
That’s not part of the TV conversation at all, of course. But it’s probably worth considering, nonetheless.