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MLB’s playoffs are likely going to be permanently expanded

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And why are they going to do this? TV money, of course.

Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Major League Baseball expanded the postseason to 16 teams in 2020, largely because the season was so short (60 games, due to the pandemic) and there was a promise of extra TV money for doing so.

The expanded playoffs proved popular and did provide some compelling baseball, even in the wild-card round. (You can be forgiven as a Cubs fan if you didn’t think their wild-card series vs. the Marlins was “compelling.” I sure didn’t.)

According to Joel Sherman in the New York Post, baseball’s likely going to have expanded playoffs going forward. You can surely guess the reason:

ESPN and Major League Baseball are closing in on a TV deal that would provide the network exclusive rights to the first round of the playoffs, The Post has learned.

Now all that is needed is a first round of the playoffs.

That needs to be negotiated between MLB and the Players Association, which is to say that, while an ESPN-MLB deal is close, they are still far from knowing when — and even if — there will be playoffs expanded from 10 to likely 14 teams to include a best-of-three first round.

Sherman’s article goes on to say that ESPN is likely going to reduce the number of games it carries during the regular season and focus on whatever this new “first round” of playoffs is going to be, in exchange for somewhat less money overall:

In the new contract, ESPN will pay a lower average value than its previous eight-year contract that was reported to be for $5.6 billion. Fewer games means less money. The exact dollars and length are not yet publicly known. It is likely to be through 2028 when the Fox and TBS baseball deals end.

However, since whatever ESPN spends would be focused on the postseason, owners and players could share in the largesse. Sherman notes that MLB would try to have other networks pick up some of the regular-season games dropped by ESPN. As noted, TBS and Fox already have contracts in place; they could pick up some of those game broadcasts, or perhaps MLB will televise them on their own channel, MLB Network.

Now, how many teams and what sort of format would such a new postseason have? I’d think it would likely be very similar to what we saw this past October, with multiple best-of-three series. Sherman’s article suggests we might have as many as 14 teams, seven per league. What we’d probably see in that case would be that the team with the best record in each league would get a bye through those best-of-three series, and then with three winners in each league, you’d set up division series as we have now.

In order to do something like this without expanding the time frame in which the MLB postseason occurs, I’d think baseball would at that point eliminate tiebreaker games for postseason spots and simply do tiebreakers as they did in 2020, or the way they’re done in other sports. This would take some drama out of October, but with a full 162-game season, using a tiebreaker is probably fair.

The danger MLB faces if they do expand the postseason is that it reduces the meaning of some of the regular season, particularly September games. Why go all-out in September if you know you’re going to the October dance anyway? Players would get rested, possibly, and September attendance and local TV ratings could be affected.

MLB doesn’t seem to care much about that, though, as long as more October money comes into their pockets. The 2020 playoffs seemed popular, as I noted, and who knows? Maybe more is better.

What do you think?

Poll

Going forward, MLB’s playoffs should have...

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    10 teams, same as pre-2020
    (192 votes)
  • 18%
    12 teams
    (63 votes)
  • 10%
    14 teams
    (34 votes)
  • 12%
    16 teams, as in 2020
    (42 votes)
  • 2%
    Something else (leave in comments)
    (9 votes)
340 votes total Vote Now