I’ve been trying to figure out what MLB could do to fix some of the glaring irregularities with both the regular season schedule and TV (and Internet) black-outs. While pondering it today, I think I may have arrived at an answer. In a word: Expansion.
The Chicago Cubs are a member of the only 6-team division in MLB. This creates scheduling oddities every year (9 games against the Giants? 7 against the Braves? WTF?) and generally screws with the even flow of series. Your ideal, idyllic American Pastime would feature two 3-game series (versus interesting opponents) a week with one day for rest as some ancient dude once wrote. Unfortunately, we are shackled by a league which has only 30 teams, making things…awkward, to say the least.
Expansion is a touchy subject due to the perceived dilution of talent that it engenders, but my aim is to make it palatable by offering more to the fan than they are now receiving. Namely, I propose that MLB expand to 32 teams but reserve the right to negotiate TV contracts for the two new teams.
(pause for calls of "Heretic!", "Idiot!", and "Will you share your stash, dude?")
I start by looking at the NFL, which retains bargaining power for TV contracts for its member clubs. There is no question that the NFL's TV coverage is harmed by having national broadcasters who are unfamiliar with the teams they cover on a week-to-week basis. On the other hand, NFL games are almost never blacked out and if I go to a sports bar, I can almost be guaranteed to see whichever game I want. This is what a strong league which retains broadcast negotiation rights can bring – people consuming the product because they are allowed to do so.
Back to expansion: Two new teams would make life incredibly easy for everyone involved – schedulers, owners, MLB execs, and fans. First, it would make league division very simple: Eight 4-team divisions a la the NFL or four 8-team divisions. Take your pick. You wanna have an eight-team playoff bracket? Go for it. You want to schedule interleague series (with in-built rivalries, if you insist on them)? Simple enough. All scheduling math becomes vastly simplified with 32 teams versus the current 30. If MLB selects their new sites wisely to avoid significant fan-base splintering (like the Nats trying to steal fans from a team that’s less than 60 miles away), this turns into an easy business decision.
The kicker is to tell the new owners that the league holds the right of first refusal for contracts involving TV broadcast rights of their games. The teams can hire their own broadcasters and build fan loyalty any way they see fit, but MLB will decide which station(s) actually show(s) the games. As MLB would hold all the cards in the fight for who is allowed to consume their product, a purer market emerges. False restrictions upon that market (caused by regional operators wishing to protect their advertising dollars) will most likely be shown to be antiquated at best and utterly counterproductive at worst.
NB: I am not proposing that MLB pocket any more cash than they already do. The owners are still allowed to keep TV cash, but the league will decide who writes the check.
This allows an experiment to occur: Will fans willingly watch a team if they are allowed to do so? With MLB holding the broadcast rights, they can offer their product to whomever they like with whatever advertising they feel is appropriate and whenever the consumer would like to buy. You don’t have to be a business major to see that expanding your potential consumer base at little to no cost to the corporation will lead to more people buying your stuff.
The end-game in this is that as individual clubs’ TV broadcast contracts expire, they will look to the league as a trusted partner and cede negotiation rights for TV coverage to the league. In less than fifteen years, MLB can create a product which is as accessible as the NFL’s, and I don’t believe any baseball fan would argue against that.
All cross-examination and accusations of drunken BS'ing are welcome below.
Note the first: I have no idea where the new clubs would go. Ottawa? Las Vegas? San Juan, PR? Mexico City? Oklahoma City? Interesting debate to be had there.
Note the second: Thanks (?) are due to Invalid User for getting me to actually commit this crap to writing.