FanPost

A Case Against Playoff Expansion


A continuous issue that has come up this season is a call for adding Wild Card teams to the postseason.  Most recently, a perception that the majority of the current pennant races are bland and already decided this season.  Playoff expansion beyond what is already in place, however, would be a terrible idea.  The reasons for this is many but can be shortened to one sentence: It would make both the MLB regular season and the post season worse.

First off, as a Phillies fan I realize this is easy to say this season.  Barring a meltdown of epic proportions the Phillies are going to the playoffs.  My opposition to playoff expansion, however, has nothing to do with the fact that the Phillies are on their way to the playoffs and everything to do with the fact that it would make for lower quality baseball. 

Allowing more teams into the playoffs mean that the regular season would have less meaning.  The fact that many of the division races and both of the Wild Card races are wide margins have led many to call for expanded playoffs is just silly.  Do people not realize that expanding the playoffs would make such playoff races less common, and more meaningless?  Sure, if the most common proposal that has been tossed around of adding one more Wild Card team there would be decent race between the Rays, Angels, Blue Jays, and the second place team in the AL Central as well as the Cardinals and the second place team in the NL West this season, but at what cost and for what reward?  Once again, the proposal is to have a one game playoff that would effectively operate as a play in game in both leagues.  So these teams would have a great stretch race and be rewarded with a one game playoff where anything could happen, in effect making the Wild Card race a farce.  If the playoffs are expanded to eight teams per leagues (which has been proposed), the race for the last two playoff spots would be between teams barely playing .500 baseball in the American League and teams BELOW .500 in the National League.

To see the damage that can be inflicted by expanded playoffs, one really needs to look no further than the NBA and the NHL.  In the time I've lived in Philadelphia I can only think of one meaningful  regular season game either team has played: The final game of the 2010 season when the Flyers and Rangers were playing for the last spot in the playoffs.  This year the 76ers had a fun team to watch but even though they were effectively playing .500 ball all season it was a forgone conclusion pretty much from the All Star break onward that they would make the playoffs, and that they wouldn't have much chance once they got there.  Even the NFL has seen the effects of playoff expansion, where if a team clinches with a few games left on the schedule the last few games have all the excitement and intrigue of preseason games where everyone's primary concern is that nobody gets hurt.

Although baseball plays a 162 game season, the fact that only a handfull of teams make the playoffs each year means that all of those games count for something.  Personally, I wish that baseball would go back to the two division per league format where only the division winners made the playoffs, but I realize that is likely to never happen.  Maybe it's because it's also the period I grew up in and became a baseball fan, but I think that the playoffs have never been better than they were in the late 80's and early 90's after the LCS were expanded to seven game series.  There were some epic series during that period of time and the feeling was that every team that was there belonged to be there.  Sure, there were some lesser quality teams that would win the World Serise (Twins in 87, Reds in 90), but it isn't like in the modern era when a team like the Marlins or Angels win the World Series as a Wild Card and is immediately written off as lucky.  Just imagine how much better the division races would be right now if the Wild Card wasnt in place.  The AL East race the last two  years alone would be the stuff that Ken Burns documentaries are made of, and yet the only drama for both years is which team will get home field advantage in the playoffs.  I would also argue that when there are fewer playoff series that more people care what happen in them and not just what their favorite team does in the playoffs.  Speaking for myself, I pretty much lose interest in the NBA/NHL playoffs once the 76ers/Flyers are eliminated.  Same goes for baseball.  I can't tell you any memory I have of the 2007 playoffs after the Phillies were eliminated, and I only watched one game of the World Series, because it happened to be on in the restaurant at the time.  Yet I can tell you a memory I have from pretty much every game of the 1992 ALCS, NLCS, and World Series even though my favorite team wasn't involved in any of them.  So while I doubt it will ever happen, it would be nice for baseball to go back to only four teams in the playoffs.

Yes, I realize the ever present argument that more teams means more games and in turn more revenue.  What remains to be seen though is how much money would be made.  Less meaningful regular season games means less fan interest means fewer tickets sold in the regular season.  So the revenue lost there would hardly be made up by one extra game in both leagues between the two wild card teams.  Once again using the example of the NBA and the NHL, it's not like both of those leagues are swimming in cash with sixteen team playoffs.  Less meaningful games meant the Sixers were playing in front of a lot of empty seats in the Wells Fargo Center this season that only filled up a little bit when the playoffs came around.  So all in all the revenue increase will be minimal.

Right now, I would argue that Major League Baseball has the best regular season and playoff format of any major American sports league.  It easily has the longest season, but every game counts.  The playoff format means there is the potential for eight playoff races that can change daily.  Adding a second Wild Card team would immediately dillute that quality and be the first step to rendering the regular season and playoffs in baseball all but drama free and meaningless.

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