Wild Card Season Wilder Than Ever

So THAT’s why they call it a Wild Card.

While Thursday’s 3-2 defeat of the New York Yankees by the Detroit Tigers was the baseball shock heard round the TV ratings world, it was last week that was really squirrelly (no offense to the St. Louis Cardinals new unofficial rally critter).

Major League Baseball‘s playoff teams weren’t decided until the final two games on the last day of the regular season, leading to unbelievable finishes for the Tampa Bay Rays, who won the AL wild card after being down 0-7 and watching the Red Sox lose to the Baltimore Orioles, and St. Louis, after the Cardinals won and the Atlanta Braves lost to the Phillies in 13 innings. (The Rays’ playoff euphoria was short-lived, as they were soon downed by the Texas Rangers 3-1; it’s only a matter of time before Texas Governor/Presidential hopeful Rick Perry tries to take credit.)

“We’ve played 200,000 games in the history of this sport, and there cannot have been a regular-season night quite like tonight,” gushed ESPN‘s Tim Kurkian in the aftermath of the most exciting regular season 25 minutes in baseball, while the St. Petersburg Times’ John Romano described the cataclysm as “drama at the highest level and with the greatest of endings. … They write books about this kind of thing.”

If Commissioner Bud Selig gets his way, however, we may never have this type of excitement again. MLB could add a second wild card team in each league as soon as next season; the two wild card teams would then hold a one-game playoff to determine who advances. Had the change been in place this season, the playoff teams in each league would have been determined a week ago.

So why would MLB fix a formula that isn’t broken? Money. The league could make tens of millions of dollars every year by hosting a wild card “play-in” game.

While people may question the new format—especially given how this year played out—it’s worth remembering that not all seasons will end this crazily. And if nothing else, maybe the new rule can help such teams as the Pittsburgh Pirates make the postseason.

Fan(nie)s on Couches and in Ballpark Seats

Selig’s decision to move the MLB regular season’s final day from a Sunday to midweek was a solid success, at least judging by Nielsen ratings. According to SportsBusiness Daily, combined total viewership for ESPN, ESPN2, and MLB Network last Wednesday night pulled a strong 2.8 overnight, including a 4.4 for the final hour of the games. Regional sports networks covering the games also fared well.

At the ballpark, baseball teams saw a slight increase in attendance during the regular season, averaging 30,366 fans per game. The Philadelphia Phillies led all of MLB with an average attendance of 45,441, followed by the Yankees, whose 45,107 average was down 3 percent from last season. The Los Angeles Dodgers, burdened with weighty legal and ownership issues, suffered MLB’s biggest attendance decline, down 17.7 percent. For the first time ever, the Dodgers were bested by the crosstown Angels.

In Phoenix, the NL West champion Diamondbacks averaged 25,795 fans per game in 2011, placing them 18th among the 30 MLB teams.

And in St. Petersburg, the Rays, despite their last-minute run to win the AL Wild Card, endured a 17 percent drop in attendance at Tropicana Field. “Short of the economy, I’m out of excuses,” St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster told local media. The Rays drew an average of 4,064 fewer fans to games than in 2010, placing them 29th in MLB.

The New Boston: Wisconsin … or Detroit?

The Green Bay Packers are the reigning NFL champions. In Detroit, the Lions are 4-0 for seemingly the first time since Androcles was alive, and as the NHL season opens, the Red Wings remain a perennial Stanley Cup threat. With MLB teams on the road to the World Series in both regions, the question hangs in the early fall air—which market is better equipped to top Boston as America’s reigning sports town?

In Milwaukee, as the Brewers clinched their first division championship since 1982, local shoppers accustomed to combing the racks for cheese heads, green and gold, rushed stores for Brewers playoff merchandise. The Brewers also set a new club record for single-season ticket sales—the team drew a Miller Park record of nearly 3.1 million fans this season, good enough to rank seventh in MLB.

As with most successful franchises, the Brewers are now looking to raise prices next year. Mark Attanasio, the Brewers’ principal owner, last week said that while the team was very pleased to have drawn more than 3 million fans this season, it also needed to increase revenue. Ticket revenue “is our key revenue component, and everybody is enjoying being in the playoffs,” Attanasio said during a press conference at Miller Park. “But it does cost money. So we’re trying to strike a balance. We’re trying to raise prices more close to the field than far away from the field. You want to be able to have a family of four come out to the ballpark and enjoy the game.”

In Detroit, the ALDS Champion Tigers advanced to the postseason for the first time since 2006, and each Tigers home game against the Yankees was estimated to pump $4.8 million into the city, according to an analysis by the Anderson Economic Group in East Lansing, Mich. Retailers, including Grand Rapids-based Meijer and MC Sports, are also reporting a strong uptick in sales. Meijer, a longtime Tigers marketing partner, has had division champion clothing in its stores since mid September, while MC Sports reports that close to 50 percent of its postseason apparel has been sold throughout the state and elsewhere.

While it lacks an NBA franchise, St. Louis is not exactly a lousy sports town. And with the Cardinals’ close series with Philadelphia, the region, according to the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission, is seeing a large bump in revenue from sports tourism and fan spending. Brian Hall, the commission’s chief marketing manager, told the local business journal that with every added game, the MLB playoffs will generate another $1.5 million for the St. Louis economy, putting the playoff total so far at close to $3 million when hotel nights, restaurant meals, and attraction sales are figured in.

At 2011 Peak, a Peek at 2012

As hordes of college football teams attempt to jump their respective conferences, a handful of Grapefruit League MLB teams have likewise been checking out the browner pastures of the Arizona desert. According to the Arizona Republic, five teams that work out in Florida in the off-season are believed to be showing an interest in Arizona’s Cactus League, including the Astros, Blue Jays, Cardinals, Nationals, and Twins. While all have long-term Florida leases, Mesa’s Hohokam Stadium, currently the preseason home of the Cubs, will become available when the Cubs move to their new, publicly funded $84 million stadium nearby in 2014. The Athletics and Brewers, currently wintering in Phoenix, are eyeing Mesa as well, although the Arizona Sports & Tourism Authority is “tapped out for new stadium funding.”

MLB will officially open its season in Japan, as the Mariners and A’s will play a two-game series Mar. 28-29 at the Tokyo Dome. The teams respectively feature two of Japan’s most beloved athletes, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui, both at the end of their careers, and the series will allow Nintendo founder Hiroshi Yamauchi, based in Kyoto, to see the Mariners play for the first time since he became majority owner in 1992. Proceeds from the games will also assist Japan Relief in the wake of March’s massive earthquake and tsunami.

One all-too-familiar place we’ll still see high-profile MLB owners in the new year is in court. In New York, Fred Wilpon and Saul Katz were awarded a partial victory last week when the U.S. District Court limited the amount of money Bernie Madoff trustee Irving Picard can recover from the Mets owners to $386 million, including $300 million in principal and $83.3 million in “profits” accumulated by the Mets owners in the two years before a bankruptcy court filing occurred, according to the AP. The case is scheduled for trial Mar. 5.

In L.A., Dodgers owner Frank McCourt is currently being sued by parties as disparate as MLB, Fox Sports West, and longtime Dodgers season ticket holders. Another group that will monitor the franchise’s off-season spending “very carefully,” according to the Los Angeles Times, is baseball’s players union. In a memo, MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner wrote, “While it is not at all clear how these issues will ultimately be resolved, we expect that the Dodgers’ players will continue to be paid and we continue to receive assurances from MLB that that will be the case.”

In West Palm Beach, finally, the renamed Miami Marlins said goodbye to their shared stadium, their manager, and their name. The team played its final game at Sun Life Stadium, shared with the football Dolphins, before moving to its new roofed ballpark in Miami’s Little Havana during the off-season. They also named colorful Ozzie Gullien as their new manager, signing him to a reported four-year contract worth $10 million.

Marlins President David Samson put it well. “The last rain delay … the last time playing on a field that has cleat marks on it, and hash marks and dash marks, and other teams’ logos,” he summarized. “The last time ever feeling as though we are not in a place that is actually our home.”

Rick Horrow is a leading expert in the business of sports. As chief executive of Horrow Sports Ventures, he has been the architect of 103 deals worth more than $13 billion in sports and urban infrastructure projects. He is also the sports business analyst for CNN, Fox Sports, and the Fox Business Channel. Karla Swatek is vice-president of Horrow Sports Ventures and co-author of Beyond the Box Score: An Insider’s Guide to the $750 Billion Business of Sports (February 2010). Beginning Sept. 28, Rick will host Sportfolio, a new program on Bloomberg TV that will air at 9 p.m. EST.