Major League Baseball has its problems. It has long since lost the battle for cultural primacy to the National Football League and, depending on the measure, may have slipped behind the National Basketball Association. The Houston Astros made news recently for registering an audience invisible to Nielsen ratings.
If the national pastime is dead, someone forgot to tell fans in Pittsburgh and Cleveland this week. Thanks to the league’s expanded playoff format, now in its second year, baseball was the talk of those two towns again, at least for one night. Last year MLB added a second Wild Card team to the playoffs in both leagues and instituted a pair of one-game playoffs between the Wild Cards. With 10 teams in the postseason instead of eight, fans in more markets would have more reason to stay engaged, while giving the league two new win-or-go-home games to sell. It was a simple idea from outgoing Commissioner Bud Selig. And it is working to plan.
In 2012, the inaugural Wild Card doubleheader, featuring matchups between the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves and the Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers, drew more than 4.6 million viewers on TBS. This year the league spread the programming over two nights. On Tuesday, the Pittsburgh Pirates victory over the Cincinnati Reds brought in another 4.6 million viewers for TBS, and, according to the network, “won the night across all cable networks among total viewers.” Results from last night’s game between the Cleveland Indians and Tampa Bay Rays are not yet available, but assuming a similar audience, that’s nearly 14 million viewers (not to mention about 180,000 ticket-buying customers) the league has added over two years.
The most precious commodity for any sports league is its inventory of games that matter. In the NFL, just about all of them do, which is why the league has long been itching to expand from a 16-game to an 18-game regular season schedule. Baseball, with a 162-game regular season, has no shortage of inventory. It’s the mattering part the league struggles with. The drama of an elimination game, as the NCAA can attest, helps solve that. As an added benefit, the expanded playoffs, as expected, have been a plus for competitive balance, with more teams from the bottom 10 in payroll than from the top 10 making the postseason.
Perhaps most important of all, the Wild Card novelty is helping baseball take back a little piece of water-cooler conversation from the mighty NFL. Fox Sports 1, anyway, is using MLB coverage as a point of differentiation with ESPN (DIS). That Fox (FOX) could employ baseball as an alternative to the mainstream is a sign of just how far the game has fallen, but it’s better than being ignored.