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Major League Baseball needs an in-season tournament

162 games could use some juice

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Cleveland Guardians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA was in an interesting place coming into the 2023 season. Viewership is probably the most talked about aspect of the NBA’s success, and while it’s both true and a bit exaggerated, the NBA was nonetheless stagnant. The stigma surrounding the league has been that there’s an effort problem. From stars sitting out games to mid-season regular season games just not having the effort worth paying to see, fans, media, and NBA executives alike were frustrated and confused.

Again, equal parts true and exaggerated, that stigma was making its way all the way up the chain of command in the NBA. In 2022, Commissioner Adam Silver addressed these issues head-on, and publicly stated that the implementation of incentive-based in-season tournaments would create a more competitive regular season environment for the game’s biggest stars. He was correct.

Despite its nay-sayers, the NBA’s inaugural In-Season Tournament has been a resounding success both in terms of viewership and what the product has looked like on the court. What it’s also done is something it’s failed to do much of in a long time: get eyes on young stars on teams outside of its top markets.

The NBA, much like MLB, cares so much about the eyes on its product nationally due to viewership decline that it comes at the detriment to a vast majority of the rest of the league that sits outside of its bigger markets. They pre-plan their nationally televised games before the season and don’t flex mid-season matchups to net better nationally televised games, and while it’s easier to predict which teams won’t be good and schedule around that, a team like the Indiana Pacers this season makes their formula look very outdated. That’s where the tournament comes into play.

The Pacers were slated to have just six nationally televised games this season despite having a very good chance to make the playoffs while also making the finals of the NBA’s In-Season Tournament. The New Orleans Pelicans made the semifinals as well, and they were slated just 12 national games this season despite having a strong young nucleus as well as a (hopefully) healthy Zion Williamson who attracts eyes on his own.

This tournament has served as a huge catapult for a young star in the making like Tyrese Haliburton, who has dominated in this tournament and gained national notoriety for it.

As we go on from here, I will explain how something similar to this for Major League Baseball would not just be ideal, it would change the perception of the game from top to bottom.

Logistics of When and How

The layout of this is pretty much a copy/paste of what the NBA has done, but visualize it more like the World Baseball Classic. Congruent to the NBA’s format, there would be six groups with five teams each. It mirrors MLB’s divisions, but the teams are broken up evenly to create fair group play matchups. Unlike the NBA, this won’t be divided among American and National League. All teams are mixed together.

The hard part for this would be scheduling. MLB plays virtually every single day from April to the first week of October. The tournament starting the season would almost make sense if weather weren’t usually such a prevalent obstacle to overcome. My thought process would be to let the teams play their regularly scheduled month of April, and start the tournament on May 1st. Doing it this way means we’ve given the weather a chance to warm up, the snow and rain to escape the Midwest and Northeast. You can only do so much with weather, but doing it at the start of May at least prevents the entire thing from being derailed.

Sorting the Teams

Teams will be sorted evenly in a pod based on total wins from the previous season. There are 30 teams, 162 games played each, which makes the total games played 4,860. Cut that in half for wins and you get 2,430. Divide that by six, and the target number is 405, give or take a few wins.

The six best records, regardless of division or division winner, will be given its own pod. If two teams have the same record, the team that won their division will be given the tiebreaker. If neither win their division, head to head record the previous season takes precedence.

There cannot be more than two teams from a division in a pod. If this slightly throws off the 405, it is what it is.

We will use 2022 as a means of sorting this for a visual aid:

Every team will play each other twice, once at home, once on the road.

Here’s how the schedule would break down for the month of May:

And the seeding schedule:

From there, you take the six pod winners and the two teams who didn’t win their pods with the best run differential and place them into an elimination bracket. One game per round, winner take all.

What does the winner get?

  • A shot at a Postseason run

This is where I get a bit bold with this and is where I think the NBA is missing out on really bringing in a major annual success of an event. That’s correct, I believe the winner of an MLB in-season tournament should be given one of the three wild card slots for the postseason. There are a couple things to read into in the logistics of this.

  1. If a team is going to win their division, that takes precedence.
  2. The team must accrue at least 75 wins in order to be eligible for the spot. 23 of 30 MLB teams accomplished this in 2023.

As aggressive as this proposition is already, the concept of, say, the 71-91 Nationals making the postseason because they won the tournament goes against the betterment of the sport. That being said, while the odds of a lesser team winning the entire thing is low, but baseball being the sport that it is, winning something like this in May could make a major difference in how a team like that Nationals squad builds around their younger players the rest of the season, opting to be more aggressive by the deadline knowing they’ve locked up a spot in the Fall Classic.

The biggest reason I suggest something this bold is fans want something to watch for that isn’t just athletes playing for extra money. If you can tell a fan of any of these teams that if they win the tournament, they get an auto-bid into the postseason, now there’s stakes. They’re tuning in for that. It’s a major component that a 162-game schedule never truly feels like it has to that casual viewer.

  • Individual bonuses

Something the NBA absolutely nailed with their in-season tournament was financial bonuses for players of the teams who make the semifinals and finals.

Per NBA.com, “Each player gets $500,000 for winning the title, $200,000 for making the final, $100,000 for reaching the semifinals and $50,000 for making the quarterfinals”.

Now, I know what you’re asking. How is this profitable for Frito Lay? Great question. Naturally, Major League baseball likely doesn’t have this kind of money to be throwing around for a multitude of reasons, chiefly that there’s a big difference between a 26-man roster and 15. However, there should still be significant bonuses like these for the players. There are a ton of rookies and players on pre-arbitration deals who could see a huge spike in their income for reaching these marks with their team in the tournament.

I also think that, similar to how the winner of the Home Run Derby makes a healthy chunk of change, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Hitter and Pitcher should also receive a bonus of some kind.

How does MLB get more eyes on the national product?

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. The way this translates to Major League Baseball is very simple: eyeballs on national television are great, but they’re only great when you’re actually getting them. Last season, across MLB’s three main national broadcast networks (ESPN, TBS, and FOX), viewership didn’t really change at all from 2022 despite an influx of younger star power taking over. ESPN was up slightly at midseason, but finished at 1.45 million average viewers, about the same as the previous season per Sports Business Journal. The KayRod Cast, the MLB’s version of the Manningcast, cratered significantly, dropping 30% from 2022, dipping under 140,000 viewers on average. TBS was up negligibly, and despite FOX moving some of their FS1 games to their primary FOX channel, viewership overall was up just 5% and down 10% on just FOX alone.

This is bad. A league with Shohei Ohtani, Aaron Judge, Mookie Betts, Ronald Acuna Jr., Bryce Harper etc. as major faces of the game should not be struggling like this despite all of their teams getting major play in the national slot times. Despite average attendance across the league posting over 70 million fans on the season for the first time since 2017, viewership didn’t translate. Sure, the game’s faster pace of play makes it an easier live watch, but it didn’t translate to the TV, and with the entire Bally Sports/Diamond Sports Group fiasco going on that’s affecting the Diamondbacks, Rangers, Twins, and, of course Guardians, national spotlight on more teams right now would be ideal.

A tournament creates stakes, and within a 162 game season, that’s what fans want. Tournaments are a cheat code for this, and when you put something as season-changing as a postseason berth on the line, you’re going to get people to watch.

How does a tournament encourage teams who don’t spend to actively try?

The short answer is it doesn’t. That issue is systemically broken from the top down. However, incentivizing players with financial rewards for team results and individual performances is a huge deal for players on teams who don’t want to accrue a big payroll to field a team because those rosters are largely made up of arbitration or pre-arb players. At the end of the day, this is about the players and the spotlight it puts on them that creates a better place for the game of baseball, and a tournament like this would force MLB to care about the teams outside of its primary markets.

Conclusion

Of course, this long winded trip down hypothetical lane is largely just speculative fun. However, this is a sport eating itself alive with its inability to garner any level of its national relevancy it once had. The World Baseball Classic final that saw Shohei Ohtani strike out Mike Trout for its final out was watched by 5.2 million viewers in the United States. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball’s highest viewed game ended with 2.85 million viewers. Fans love when there’s something to invest in, and investing in a 162 game season night in and night out is largely seen as an optional tuning in throughout the season, but for three weeks in May, baseball could own the sports world all on its lonesome.