What Baseball Can Learn from Other Leagues
While originally a piece of an article about all sports, I had to cut two of the sections short for length considerations, so I figured I might embellish upon the notion within the specific sports at hand.
First of all we examine major league baseball; probably the sport that should most examine how other leagues work as football and basketball are enjoying a rise in overall popularity while viewership and ticket sales are down in baseball.
More than the payroll/market considerations, I think the biggest trouble-spot of Major League Baseball is its playoffs, the bread and butter of any league's excitement.
With eight total teams that play at maximum 9.5 percent of their season in the playoffs (assuming two seven-game series and a five game), baseball has the worst playoff to regular season ratio of any sport to go with that incredibly long 162-game schedule.
For comparison an NFL team plays a maximum of 20 percent of their games in the playoffs, the NHL and NBA can top out at 25.5 percent of their total season within the playoffs.
So what are we to do? You cannot argue the playoff race itself makes up for it when you can generally predict four to six of those playoff teams pretty accurately at the halfway point.
The league fervently does not want to expand the season to last longer, and a large gash to the regular season would never get by the player's association. What could be coaxed would be a compromise.
Reduce the number of games to 156, then increase the number of wild-card teams to two, taking a page from the NFL (giving the best teams a bye would not be all that extreme, as a sweep played against a team with a seven game series has roughly the same amount of time off).
This extends the playoffs to a maximum of 13.3 percent of the season's total, nothing drastic to hit that 20 percent mark of the rest, but enough to hold excitement and anticipation a bit longer.
The other effect of this would be a more interesting wild-card race. One team may be a lock for that No. 4 seed, but the No. 5 could provide extra teams with incentive to fight for a playoff berth.
They may not be world series contenders, but gives mid-market teams something to strive for.
It may also serve to reduce the number of player dumps at the trading deadline. With a five seed in the air does a Devil Ray team keep ahold of Scott Kazmir and try for the playoffs?
You can't say for sure, but I contend that it would keep two to four additional teams (that is two to four in the AL and two to four in the NL) in the playoff hunt rather then the extra one per that the actual number of added slots reflect.
The possibility of a playoff series can be used as a reason to maintain a better payroll with the non upper-echelon teams, which makes these teams more competitive and could help smooth out the imbalance that is the current MLB. This to me seems the best way to achieve parity without an actual salary cap (though I still advocate that a well).
Beyond the playoff/regular season format we must also address the most obvious: the salary cap.
I think a hard-cap a la the NFL would not be beneficial; it would be too rough an integration. What would work, instead of the present more oblique revenue sharing system, would be an NBA type salary cap where the cap is not absolute, but an owner’s pocketbook starts getting light twice as fast once he goes over that cap.
Should Steinbrenner wish to spend more than any other team, he still can, but it will help keep the amount more tempered.
Likewise, smaller market teams would have a benchmark, and if a payroll is significantly below that salary cap you know a fan base has room to complain.
This assuages both the big market club need to separate itself with greater spending, but give medium market clubs a region to shoot for where they can keep pace much better. This, paired with the new playoff format proposed, would encourage more clubs to be competitive for a longer period of time, fewer big name trade-deadline selloffs which make those teams again competitive the next year and perpetuate a trend that is self-sustaining.
The big issue with baseball (at least in this writer’s eyes) is the short playoff and foregone conclusion that is the bulk of the playoff race. Adding extra wildcard teams and giving a fiscal opportunity to keep pace should help more clubs remain in the playoff race longer, and make the playoff outliers (such as the twins of this year) more competitive so we hopefully don’t have three first round sweeps.
Hopefully, Baseball realizes the course it is on builds a bit of a malaise in all but a few fan bases. This cuts into the desire to heavily invest in your team. With football, and to a lesser extent basketball, one can watch sizeable turnarounds within one or two years.
In baseball, a fan of the Pirates, Padres, Nationals, etc. do not have motivation to expect anything because when they make steps this usually means a player has been developed well enough to unload in an offseason or trade deadline move.
These teams may not get enough of a boost to make the playoffs, but you have a chance that they at least remain competitive enough to be worth watching across the second half of the season, and an overachiever may just eke into the spare wildcard slot.
This "anyone might just make it" idea is good for any league and could work to help improve interest and viewership that is flagging at present in an economy where it is tougher to maintain one’s full attentions on multiple sports at a time.
Right now when Football goes up against Baseball, more often than not football is winning in media shares.
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