The juggling act between rewarding the best teams and widening the field to offer meaningful games to an increasing number of teams has long been a subject of conversation within professional sports.
We’re heading towards the end of September and the grueling 162-game regular season across the MLB is coming to a close. That is when things start to get decidedly more serious for a now increased number of teams.
The oldest of America’s professional sports organizations, MLB has its roots dating back to the 1870s. From 1901-68, the two teams with the best records in their respective American and National leagues would go head-to-head in a best of seven series to determine the winner. This is not the place to chart a spotted history of MLB from that date forward, but suffice to say that with the growing number of franchises entering the field of play, two leagues were split into more regional divisions and the whole process began to get complicated. As the decades wore on, six division winners soon became eight postseason berths, courtesy of two wildcard spots given to the team with the next-best record in each league.
The ultimate do or die scenario was born into the 2012 season when the one-game wildcard game was introduced into both the American and National Leagues, whereby the winner would adopt the fourth seed and be rewarded with a matchup against the top-seeded team, while the second and third seeds battle in the corresponding fixture.
No less than seven wildcard teams have gone on to win the ultimate prize; the most memorable arguably being the 2014 Kansas City Royals, who rallied from deficits of 2-0, 7-3 and 8-7 to win a 12-inning outing against the Oakland Athletics.
The playoff process is engineered to help the top seed through home field advantage, fresh arms to call on, and the confidence permitted. Since one of the wildcard revamps in 1995, only three teams who had the best regular season record have won the World Series. This includes the Seattle Mariners, who won 116 games in the 2001 season. Since then, they have not been to the postseason and hold the unwanted record of longest active drought in all professional American sports.
This year marks a change in format as 12 teams crash the postseason party and crucially the one wild card game becomes a best-of-three series. An increase on the 10 teams from the previous format, it’s a tantalizing proposition for more teams and one where winning your division is still your only guarantee of making the cut. At the point of writing, the ultra-competitive AL East could still foreseeably provide all three AL wild card teams and second place in both the AL Central and West divisions may not be enough. With the removal of the one-game wild card playoff, teams can no longer rely on their ‘ace’ in a winner-takes-all matchup and a three-game series mirroring those from the season-long campaign and surely reflecting a more squad-based and measured clash seems more appropriate.
Will the postseason playoff model ever win over the doubters in the traditional leagues such as the English Premiership (soccer)? Top managers like Jurgen Klopp (Liverpool FC) and Pep Guardiola (Manchester City FC) are among those who have been vocal about the exhaustive length of the season as it stands, so any move toward extending this with any type of playoff tournament will surely draw criticism. Interestingly, Todd Boehly, a part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Lakers and the new Chelsea FC Chairman, was outspoken earlier this month when suggesting a North versus South All-Star match.
“Ultimately, I hope the Premier League takes a little bit of a lesson from American sports,” Boehly said. “Why isn’t there a tournament? Why isn’t there an All-Star game? In the MLB All-Star game this year we made $200 million from a Monday and Tuesday.”
Money talks, but does it come at a cost of quality play, or should it just be that making the product and brand as exciting and marketable as possible is the ultimate goal.