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Monday, April 25, 2011

CNN: Baseball Could Use Expanded Playoffs

Not long ago, when the subject of changes to baseball playoffs came up, the talk usually centered around team expansion. With two more teams in place, a 32-team MLB could break each of its two leagues into four divisions of four. Eight first place finishers would advance to the postseason, with a “wild card,” as such, no longer needed.
That Commissioner Bud Selig seems to be closing in on adding a pair of wild card teams for 2012 would seem to be an indication that expansion is the last thing MLB is thinking about these days. Better to  hold back any viable markets out there, such as Charlotte or Las Vegas, until Tampa Bay and Oakland have their stadium issues resolved.  So a new playoff round, either a best-two-of-three or a single game elimination, may well happen.
Tim Linceum and a few other MLB stars aren’t happy with the idea of adding another playoff team to the mix in each league. From a pure fairness standpoint for the players and teams, the addition of a sudden death round, should the one-game format be adopted, cuts both ways. The downside is the unfairness of gutting out 162 games only to have to win a one game showdown against a lesser team to secure a wild card berth. There is an upside, though: a wild card play-in restores the premium of winning your division. Since baseball’s 1995 expansion to three divisions and a wild card in each league, the only real goal for a contending team has been securing 0ne of the four playoff spots. Getting there through a division title or wild card makes little difference, if any. The Yankees practically conceded the AL East to the Rays last year as they rested players in preparation for the playoffs. But the new proposal will surely motivate teams to finish first and avoid a preliminary one and done round.
But what of the business effects? More postseason content means more money.  But it also means a diluted postseason product, where getting there isn’t seen as such a big deal. So what’s the right balance?  The NCAA upped its March Madness field to 68 teams from 64 this year. Fine, but why not 128 or 256 teams? Some experts point to the 50% threshold – if fewer than half the teams are admitted, backlash should be minimal.
“Baseball still has the fewest number of playoff teams of any major sports league, it shouldn’t really dilute the quality very much,” says Lee Berke, a New York-based sports media consultant who points out that MLB now has its own network to air extra playoff games should bidding by its TV partners not meet expectations. Judging by the interest in the first round playoff games in the 16-team field NBA, where TNT and ABC-ESPN are seeing solid ratings, baseball would probably be well served by stretching the field a bit. Especially since the markets they play in are stretched enough, at least for now.

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