McAdam: New playoff format just what MLB needs

McAdam: New playoff format just what MLB needs
March 1, 2012, 3:57 pm
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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The temptation is to say, enough, that when it comes to the playoffs less is more, and that an expanded playoff format will serve only to water down October.

That's the temptation.

The reality is far different. Adding a wild card entry in each league, starting this October -- which MLB is poised to do -- is actually, counter-intuitively, a good thing on several fronts.

Let us count the ways:

1) It will sustain interest in more cities for a longer period of time.

Look, football is king of the sports hill. There's no sense arguing that point. Once September arrives, football -- college, but especially the NFL -- blots out the sun.

Fantasy league and office pools dominate and the NFL rules the late summer and early fall. If you live in a city with an NFL franchise and an out-of-contention baseball team on Labor Day, chances are you won't think much about baseball again until the World Series.

But if the opportunity exists for more baseball teams to remain in the post-season hunt, baseball has a fighting chance to maintain fan interest into the fall.

Just the hint of contention is enough to engage a fan base. Look at how fans responded in recent seasons in cities like Milwaukee and Cincinnati and other places where the playoffs had become rare occurrences.

What's more, one playoff appearance can jump-start interest for years to come. Since the Brewers ended a long post-season drought in 2008, they've drawn in excess of three million fans in two of the last three seasons.

2) Expanding to 10 playoffs teams -- five in each league -- doesn't constitute "watering down.''

The NFL has 32 teams and 12 make the playoffs, meaning 37.5 percent of the teams qualify. In both the NFL and NBA, more than half (53 percent, or 16-of-30 teams) get invited to the playoffs.

For baseball, one-third (10-of-30) will get to the post-season under the new format.

And remember, teams in baseball play 10 times the number of games that NFL teams do and almost exactly twice as many games as NBA and NHL teams play.

So, to review: it's still tougher -- by every measuring stick -- to get into baseball's post-season than any other sport.

Teams have to play more games and a smaller percentage of the field qualifies, enduring that the regular season still has meaning.

Speaking of which . . .

3) The new format will actually enhance pennant races.

When the current format was introduced in 1995, purists such as Bob Costas declared that we would never again see another true pennant race.

That was largely incorrect. In plenty of seasons, teams battled right down to Game No. 162 -- and sometimes beyond -- to see who would get to the playoffs.

Just last fall, two teams got in -- and two teams narrowly missed out -- thanks to the last few innings of the last few games of a six-month-long season.

Such exciting scrambles won't disappear under the expanded plan. In fact, the more teams involved in the race, the more excitement is generated.

And now, teams will have added incentive down the stretch because . . .

4) The new format places a premium on winning your division.

One of the flaws of the current format was that there was little advantage to finishing first versus coming in second as a wild-card entrant. It meant the difference of a couple of home games and nothing more.

Recall that in 2010, the Tampa Bay Rays and New York Yankees approached the final days and weeks of a division race with complete indifference. It was plainly evident that neither team placed any importance on finishing ahead of the other, simply because there wasn't much at stake.

But now, there's a distinct advantage to finishing first rather than second as a wild card: The three division winners will each get first-round byes and will be given an extra day or two to sort out their pitching.

Wild card teams, on the other hand, will be forced into a one-game showdown with one another.

Now, if two teams are tied for the division lead on the final weekend, there's plenty for which to play. Win the division and you're rewarded with some time to put your rotation in order and don't have to face the prospect of a single loss ending your season.

5) The one-game playoff format will do monster TV ratings.

For a generation of sports fans weaned on the "win-or-go-home'' set-up in the NFL playoffs and March Madness, the wild-card round will produce instant allure.

Some of the highest-rated playoff games in recent baseball history have been the play-in games (think Colorado-San Diego in 2007; Minnesota-Chicago in 2008; and Detroit-Minnesota in 2009).

Even casual fans are drawn to the allure of the "one-and-done'' drama. Now, the first-round games have the potential to lure in casual fans and keep them interested for the remainder of the Division Series, League Championship Series and World Series.