Is MLB’s expanded postseason here to stay? Everybody pleased with wild-card ratings

SAN DIEGO — The numbers are in, the TV folks are pleased, and Major League Baseball is all in, hoping that the expanded postseason is here to stay.

The 16-team postseason, with a best-of-three first round instead of sudden-death wild-card games, was a success, according to viewership numbers from Nielsen.

ESPN – including ESPN2 and ABC – reached 43.76 million viewers and averaged 1.836 million viewers in its 16 games, including 2.64 million viewers for Game 1 between the New York Yankees and Cleveland Indians.

“Overall, we were very happy,’’ said Burke Magnus, ESPN vice president of programming. “It was really difficult to sort of calibrate our expectations with this format being totally new and so different traditionally. It was a wild four-day, 16-game schedule. But we loved the format and considering all of the competition taking place, we were pleased.’’

The wild-card round went head-to-head with the NBA playoffs, NHL playoffs, the NFL, college football, and the first presidential debate – and held its own.

“I thought it went off great,’’ said Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer. “I love the first round. It was a fall frenzy to me. It was sort of a March Madness feel to it. You had all of the games, eight in one day, with no down time. It just created an atmosphere that we haven’t had in the past.’’

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It’s still unknown whether there will be an expanded postseason in 2021 considering the Major League Baseball Players Association has to approve the new format, which will pay MLB about $900 million this year.

The fear among the players union is that if too many teams qualify for the postseason, it will de-incentivize competition during the regular season with 16 of the 30 making it this year. Why have a huge payroll when more than half of the teams are qualifying for the playoffs anyways?

After all, this was the first time that teams with losing records (the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers) qualified for the playoffs.

Certainly, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays, who had the best records in their perspective leagues, should have a greater advantage than the Astros, who finished with a 29-31 record.

Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres celebrate a Yankees win in the wild-card series against Cleveland. (Photo: David Richard, USA TODAY Sports)

MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has proposed a 14-team postseason in the future, giving the two best teams a first-round bye, and keeping the first round as a best-of-three series – eliminating the one-game, winner-take all wild-card games.

“I kind of like the 14-team concept because it provides a reward to the overall best record in both leagues,’’ Magus said. “I just hope the best-of-three wild-card round is here to stay. It still will have a winner-go-home game in it. I thought a one-game playoff was a pretty tough circumstance for teams playing a very long season.

“I think this is a much fairer way.’’

Certainly, the expanded first round provided some complications. ESPN allotted three-hour time slots for games, but some lasted nearly five hours, causing numbers overlaps with the network needing to shift games to different channels.

Game 2 of the Chicago Cubs-Miami Marlins series on ABC was taken off the air in the ninth inning with the breaking news that President Donald Trump was being hospitalized with COVID-19, forcing the game to be shifted to ESPN.

“It was the worst possible moment going into the bottom of the ninth,’’ Magnus said. “But it was understandable. It was an enormous news story that ABC had to cover. And we had a couple of games that ran log, but we always had a different platform to go to.

“In the future, we may space it out a little more, and maybe put Baseball Tonight in between games.’’

Yet, glitches or not, there’s no question the opening round created much more excitement than in the past. And with more games – and more viewers – there is more money. And with more money, the owners and players must find a way to figure out an equitable system where everyone profits.

The players are guaranteed only a $50 million postseason share this year with no fans permitted until the ALCS and World Series. And considering TBS and FOX recently negotiated $8.8 billion worth of extensions through 2028, there is plenty of TV dough to go around.

How that extra TV money will be shared is going to discussed, long and hard, at the bargaining table when MLB and the union negotiates a new labor agreement with the current one expiring Dec. 1, 2021.

Yet, there is no question that the postseason format was a huge hit, and whether the expanded postseason continues in 2021, or starts back again in 2022, it will be here to stay.

“I think the goal has always been having more fans watching the games,’’ Garden said, “and by modifying the postseason, it did just that. To see double the amount of fans in the first round, I don’t know if you can ask for more than that.’’

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