Friday, March 02, 2012

Expanding MLB wild card playoffs – an idea long overdue

For those selling Toronto Blue Jays tickets the reports that Major League Baseball are set to add two wild card baseball playoff teams is exactly what they needed to hear. The Blue Jays, winners of back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, had the highest payroll in baseball when they won their second title.

The Blue Jays 1993 payroll was $50 million; their 2011 payroll is $61 million, 22nd in baseball, less than the Oakland Athletics. The New York Yankees’ 2011 payroll was $196 million, the Boston Red Sox $161 million the third highest. Tampa Bay won the American League Wild Card spot with a $41 million payroll, but the Rays success is based on the young players they have drafted – players they will lose as soon as they reach free agency.

The Blue Jays are owned by Rogers Communications, who leverage their Blue Jays ownership by televising the team’s 162 games on Rogers SportsNet, one of Canada’s national sports cable networks. It is in the best interest of Rogers for the Blue Jays to win, but what incentive does Rogers really have for the Blues Jays to win? Over the last decade the Yankees have made the playoffs nine times, the Red Sox seven. The Yankees’ and the Red Sox’s payrolls are baseball’s highest over the last decade – both teams spend whatever they have to win baseball games. Over the last decade the Blue Jays payroll has been among the bottom 20% in baseball.

Until Major League Baseball decided to expand the number of teams making the playoffs from eight to 10, the Blue Jays had little, if any incentive, to improve their team by spending money of free agents. No more than two American League East teams could qualify for the playoffs. The new format allows three teams from any division to make the playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Rays made the 2010 American League playoffs. At the end of the 2010 season the Rays lost Carl Crawford, Randy Choate, Carlos Peña, Dan Wheeler and Rafael Soriano to free agency. The Rays winning the 2011 American League wild card was more of an anomaly than a reflection of reality. Rays majority owner Stuart Sternberg hasn’t shown any interest in keeping the players the Rays have beyond the six years of team control afforded every MLB team. The Rays recent success is a combination of bad baseball and good drafting. The Rays had the worst team in baseball for nearly a decade placing the Rays at the top of MLB’s amateur draft. The Rays have drafted and developed their young players – but based on their inability to sign their players long-term are developing their players for other MLB teams.

The adding of a wild card team to the MLB playoff mix makes things very interesting for teams like the Toronto Blue Jays. Before MLB decided to add one team in each league Rogers was making the right business decision in not increasing their payroll. The Blue Jays attracted 2.4 million fans to the Rogers Centre in 2008. The team’s attendance has fallen since. In 2011 1.8 million fans attended Blue Jays games. Rogers haven’t been losing money on the Blue Jays, nor have they been making money.

Times are changing for the Toronto Blue Jays as the team’s management acknowledged.

“I think giving every city in the game more hope is a good thing,” says Toronto Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who should know.

The plan Major League Baseball is ready to put forward for the 2012 season is for the each league’s two wild card teams to play each other in a one game elimination. Yes each team will have made the playoffs, but when all is said and done the additional teams get to play each other in a one-game playoff.

Blue Jays CEO and expansion advocate Paul Beeston told Canada’s National Post, “That one game, if you’re not one of those four teams that are in it, you’re going to love it. If you’re one of those four teams, you’re going to say it should have been two out of three or three out of five.”

Several baseball insiders have suggested the addition of a wild card team perverts MLB playoff system. Before the 1969 season only the winners of the American and National League playoffs made the playoffs, facing off in a best of seven World Series. Starting with the 1995 playoffs MLB added a wild card team from each league (the team with the best record after the three division winners). The 1997 Florida Marlins, 2002 Anaheim Angels, 2004 Boston Red Sox and 2011 St. Louis Cardinals each won their league’s respective wild card and went onto win their World Series.

“You have a chance with the one game, so that’s good, but the flip side of that is with the one wild card at least you knew you were in the playoffs,” Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos told the National Post. “I guess the one-game playoff is still the playoffs, but winning the division, now, is huge. I mean, it is massive compared to past years.

“You’re still trying to build that great team, and to do that you’re still trying to acquire the elite players. It’s easy to say that but a lot harder to do it. I don’t think it changes anything. But I do think it’s exciting for the fans, for September — baseball should be significantly stronger and more exciting, and that one game will definitely be must-see TV.”

“I think you’re still going to build your team to win the division — I mean, you’re not going to build your team to win the wild card — but if it gives our guys a chance to be in there, to have the experience of being in the pennant race, and hopefully getting there, I think it’s better,” Beeston says. “Our goal is not to be a wild-card team. But we’ll take it, though, trust me we’ll take it.”

Blue Jays fans had little, if any, hope their team would make the playoffs. Now at least when Opening Day begins Blue Jays fans will have hope. The Yankees and the Red Sox will continue to spend until they drop, but for Blue Jays fans hope that the team will be a part of the post season won’t end on Opening Day. And for those selling Blue Jays tickets – the possibility the Jays may make the playoffs offers a great marketing and sales opportunity.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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