Saturday, March 03, 2012

Playoffs? Playoffs? Sure, Why Not?

By common consent among the seamerati, the final day of the 2011 baseball regular season was one of the most thrilling events in the sport's history. Four teams competing for two playoff spots were in four different games with their fates on the line, and three of games went to extra innings. The last hour or so of the season became instant lore.

Baseball's immediate reaction was to make sure nothing like that happens again. Teams suffered heartbreaking losses and missed the playoffs? Why, we'll make the playoffs bigger. We're selling happiness here.

So in 2012, instead of eight teams making the playoffs, there will be 10. Each league will have two wild card teams, who will play a one-game playoff to advance to the divisional series round. Opinion within baseball is all for it. Opinion among mere fans ranges the gamut from apathy to more apathy. Television ratings indicate fans do a great job ignoring the divisional series. I'm sure they'll do even better avoiding the one-game duel to the death that baseball should but won't call the Runner-Up Bowl.

The theory that's presented as this idea's cover story is that it will generate more regular season pennant races (obsolete term, I know, but nobody's come up with a better one yet). Instead of four teams fighting for two spots, there could be six fighting for four. Nothing is more common than an unprecedented event such as the 2011 season happening over and over again.

The problem with the cover story is obvious if one extends its logic. If 10 teams in the playoffs makes for more regular season excitement than eight, than obviously 12 create more September thrills than 10, and so on. This is why sports fans are never more emotionally involved than when following the last month of the NBA and NHL regular seasons.

Even baseball is better at marketing than to create products for which there is no demand and expect it to work. Like our nation's campaign finance laws, the extra wild-card team is an internal matter. The fans/voters have nothing to do with it. The feathering of incumbent nests is the driving force.

As a rule, I avoid conspiracy theories when it comes to baseball. It's kind of like applying conspiracy theories to the Three Stooges. Incompetence is always the best explanation of why things happen in a sport whose executive talent believes Machiavelli played third base for the 1943 St. Louis Browns.

But television IS a business where conspiracy theories are appropriate, indeed, mandatory. And the baseball playoffs are a television show, the only reason the sport has national TV contracts in the first place (although playoff ratings perennially disappoint, and regular season ratings continue to grow).

To be blunt, does anyone really believe that if the Red Sox hadn't missed the playoffs last year, there'd be an extra wild-card team today? Either the Sox or Yankees have failed to make the playoffs for the past three seasons. That's intolerable for broadcasting executives, who know the iron law of ratings is that people like to see what they've always seen on TV. Originality equals a sad career transition to independent production.

It'd be just a bit too raw for MLB to create what its TV partners really want -- a playoff system where the Yankees and Red Sox play a best-of-nine series to advance to the World Series against the winner of all the other playoff series. But if neither the Sox nor Yanks make it to the postseason this year (could happen, New York's an old, old team, and those tend to fall apart quite suddenly. The Sox aren't exactly a sure thing, not after last September), look for a 12 team playoff in 2013.


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