Today Major League Baseball added two teams to the playoffs for the season that begins in April, a year earlier than the new collective bargaining agreement requires. Under the new format, each league will have two wild-card winners, instead of one, for a total of 10 playoff teams. The two wild-card winners will play a one-game playoff to meet the top-seeded division winners in their league. From there, the basic format will remain the same. We checked with Vince Gennaro—author of Diamonds Dollars: The Economics of Winning in Baseball, a consultant to major league teams, and president of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)—to break down how the sport’s various constituencies will fare from the change.
Fans—Winners: Baseball lovers got a taste of capping off the 162-game regular season with an elimination game when the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres played a 13-inning wild-card tiebreaker in 2007 and again in 2009, when the Detroit Tigers and Minnesota Twins played a 12-inning thriller. VG: “What they’ve essentially done is legislate in a 163rd game in both leagues. Last year, you could argue, we didn’t need it because we had unbelievable stuff going on the last night of the season, but you’re not going to have that every year. Now you’ve got a real attraction leading right into the playoffs. From a fan’s standpoint, it’s tremendous.” Plus, with 10 of the 30 teams making the postseason, fans in more cities have reason to care later in the season.
New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox—Losers: At least one of the two AL East giants has won a playoff berth every season since baseball instituted the wild card in 1994, the last time the sport tinkered with its format. Both have qualified in eight of the 17 seasons. Under the old system, winning the wild card was virtually indistinguishable from winning the division. Either way, you played in a best-of-five divisional series. Now baseball’s two biggest spenders face the prospect of being bounced in a single game. VG: “If the Yankees won the wild card now, it would be a disaster in the Bronx, because they have to go through this toll gate that’s a coin flip.” Ditto the Red Sox. This comes on top of more onerous luxury taxes for teams that spend above a set level. The Yankees have already declared that they intend to get down to the $189 payroll threshold for 2013, now that repeat offenders are hit with 50 percent tax. VG: “That [tax] was a punch to the nose. This [format] is a punch to the gut.”
The other 28 teams—Winners: What’s bad for the Yankees and Red Sox, of course, is good for teams that can’t or won’t spend at their level. VG: “We’ll have better competitive balance this way.”
TV networks—Uncertain: It remains to be seen who will carry the one-game playoffs, which should bring in top ratings. The risk for the networks, however, is that small market teams will be more likely to sneak into the World Series. Unlike the NFL, baseball can’t expect to draw viewers no matter who’s playing. VG: “Remember [in 2006] when we had the Steelers and the Seahawks in the Super Bowl? If the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Seattle Mariners were ever in the World Series, it would be a disaster. Fox wouldn’t be too thrilled.” He doesn’t see that happening soon, but if it does, expect the league to respond: “If you had a 94-win wild-card team getting knocked off by an 84-win wild-card team a couple of times, I’m sure there would be an outcry for at least a best out of three [wild card] series.”