An expanded postseason field, and the accompanying surge in annual revenue, is perhaps the most critical issue for Major League Baseball during the ongoing wave of collective bargaining talks with the MLB Players Association. MLB has continually pushed for an expansion to 14 teams, and while the MLBPA has acquiesced and shown a willingness to expand the field to an extent, their latest proposals have included a slightly smaller 12-team field (as a trade-off for myriad other potential gains/wins for the union).
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported yesterday that in the event of a push to 14 teams, ESPN would pay MLB an additional $100MM in television fees for the newly created games and postseason content. That’s all the explanation needed for why the league views expanded playoffs as an imperative, but even a move to a 12-team format would be immensely beneficial. Andrew Marchand of the New York Post reports that even expanding to 12 teams would net MLB an additional $85MM in revenue from ESPN. Those figures are critical to keep in mind, as they provide context for the gains the union hopes to achieve through its own asks in negotiation.
The Players Association has previously suggested the possibility of a “ghost win” for division winners — that is, the winners of each division who do not receive a bye would effectively start a series up 1-0 over their Wild Card opponents. The Wild Card clubs would be tasked with winning one more game than the division winners in order to advance to the next round, with the union’s general belief being that this structure would incentivize teams to push to win the division rather than “settle” for a Wild Card.
ESPN’s Buster Olney tweeted that one potential iteration of a 12-team playoff field would give each league’s best two teams a first-round bye, while the remaining eight teams would compete in best-of-three series. Olney doesn’t indicate whether that’s a union- or league-proposed structure, but that seems to diverge rather notably from the union’s prior “ghost win” scenario. It’s possible Olney’s scenario is one way the league envisions a potential increase to a dozen teams, but there’s been no firm agreement on postseason expansion anyhow, so the specifics are still very much up for debate in negotiations.
One potential alternative, if the league considers the “ghost win” unpalatable, could be to stack home-field advantage for the better team, although it’s not clear whether the union would consider this enough incentive to win the division. Still, as MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz wrote in 2020, in a theoretical best-of-seven series played between two evenly matched teams, his own historical research has suggested the home team would win 59% of the time. Add the revenue and allure of hosting that series (gate, parking, concessions, surrounding developments), and there would indeed be some incentive; alternatively, however, some clubs might balk at the notion of reaching the playoffs and yet not playing host to a single contest.
There are countless permutations that could be explored, but the crux of the matter for the union — beyond wanting to ensure that they receive sufficient compensation for agreeing to the change — has been some wariness that an expanded playoff field will actually disincentivize teams from spending. Increasing the field to 14 teams, for instance, would’ve allowed an 83-win Reds team that slashed payroll last offseason and an 82-win Phillies team to enter the 2021 postseason. The general concern that teams might feel the expanded format can help them skate into the postseason without making meaningful offseason upgrades obviously has its detractors, but the union has regularly pitched it as a central focus.
In general, anti-tanking measures have been a key talking point for the MLBPA during negotiations, and The Score’s Travis Sawchik tweets that the league and union at least discussed the possibility of awarding monetary bonuses to teams small-market clubs who are making an effort to compete. The funds would be allocated at commissioner Rob Manfred’s discretion, and it remains unclear just where the parameters for receiving said bonuses would be set. Presumably, that’d be its own set of negotiations, though win totals and reaching the postseason make for natural benchmarks — at least in concept. The source of these additional bonus funds remains unclear, though Sawchik does add that revenue sharing would continue in addition to this hypothetical concept, so it’s not a straight replacement scenario.
There’s about three hours to go until the latest “deadline” from MLB. Manfred has termed any cancellation of regular-season games a “disastrous outcome for the industry” and made no indication of any possibility of rescheduling missed games. However, Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post reports that the MLBPA has been holding out hope that, in the event games are ultimately stricken from the regular-season calendar, the two sides can negotiate a means of making them up somewhere down the road in 2022.
Whether that’d come in the form of additional doubleheaders, the addition of some makeup games on would-be off days or in some other capacity isn’t known. MLB was, in 2020, staunchly against pushing regular-season games into October — although last year’s regular season included three games in early October. The logistics of trying to reschedule any missed games would bring about its own complicated set of negotiations, and both sides would surely prefer to simply agree to terms that facilitate an on-time start to the season. We’ll know just how feasible that is before too long.