The concepts of “parity” and “fairness” in sports were exposed as fig leaves long ago. The idea that fans would care more, i.e. buy more tickets and watch more games on TV, if more teams had a chance at playoff berths and championships was never as important to owners. What was important was not being required to spend as much money, either through salary caps that would ensure the aforementioned, ginned-up horeseshit concepts or the bar being lowered for their team to be considered successful. But that’s the story that fans have always been told when leagues went for more playoff teams.
Nowhere is that more obvious than MLB, which less than 30 years ago had by far the most exclusive playoff field, with just four teams moving on from the 162. Even the move to eight playoff teams kept MLB’s postseason tournament in 1995 a pretty velvet-rope encircled club, with barely a quarter of teams moving on, unlike the NBA and NHL which saw about half, and the NFL, where somewhere around 40 percent move on. Again, in 1995 we were told that playoff expansion was needed to keep more fans interested throughout the six-month season. We were told the same thing when MLB added a ninth and 10th playoff team in 2012. And it was the same story this season, when an 11th and 12th team made the postseason, meaning a full 40 percent of teams make the playoffs now.
So if that’s true, why does no one give a shit?
Last week, the Phillies and Jays got together in Philly for a two-game set. Both teams are in a playoff spot, with the Jays still scrambling to secure their wild card series at home, and the Fightins trying to lock down a spot at all. And this is in Philadelphia, long considered one of the most rabid sports towns in the country, on a Tuesday and Wednesday, with no Sixers or Flyers or Eagles to worry about.
The Phillies drew 21K and 29K for the two games, respectively.
Also last week, the Milwaukee Brewers — who admittedly have been something of a bloated corpse for a while and ceded the NL Central to the Cardinals long ago but are still very much in the wildcard race — hosted the New York Mets for three games. The Mets are a playoff lock and one of the glitterati of the NL. The Crew drew 25,000, 26,000, and 25,000 in the three games. That’s four to five thousand less than the Brewers have been averaging this year. Those aren’t bad crowds, but at the end of September against a well-known and good team…wasn’t the point of all this that September attendances would be juiced?
Speaking of the Mets, last weekend they hosted the Pirates, while still in a dogfight for the NL East with the Braves. They failed to draw over 25,000 for the first two games of that series, or more than that for the previous three against the Cubs, even with all the deranged weirdos that still follow that team around. Thankfully, attendance rebounded for Gary Cohen bobblehead night, because you know you can’t keep down the hordes for Gary Cohen bobblehead night. Or keep down Gary Cohen, for that matter.
Let’s flip to the AL. Sure, the White Sox have been a funeral dirge all season. And attendance on the Southside is always contentious. But they still had one last chance to haul themselves into a race with Cleveland last Tuesday and, withTony La Russa gone, they’d been playing well leading into the series. Gorgeous Tuesday night, biggest game of the season, Dylan Cease on the mound…
But hey, the Guardians are a great story, right? Out of nowhere to division champs? Must be grabbing The Land by the brain banana, surely. Their last home series, a five-game swing series against the Twins, and only one of the five games drew more than 20,000, and that was only 24,000. Turns out fans find it hard to latch onto a team when they know everyone will be traded as soon as they’re eligible to be paid more than a shiny new donkey.
It spreads to TV as well. Last week’s TBS doubleheader involving four playoff teams — the Astros, Rays, Padres, and Cardinals — ranked 80th and 89th on cable that night.
The week before that, a Yankees-Red Sox game didn’t outperform the WNBA Finals (and rightly so) and got clocked in the 18-49 demo. The following night, the Brewers-Cardinals game on FS1 was badly outwatched by a Champions League game on spanish-language TUDN in the afternoon.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t teams drawing well. They’re the names you’d expect–the Dodgers, Yankees, Padres, Braves, Cardinals, Astros. And the overall economy has many factors that don’t Uleave a whole throng of people with the disposable income to attend a ton of games. Except, again, we were told that more teams vying for more playoff spots was supposed to punch through these kinds of factors. It’s what they’ve been telling us for nearly 30 years.
It may just be that fans actually recognize when the regular season is devalued, and the dangling carrot of just two or three wildcard games doesn’t really get the loins tingling. Or that teams that have playoff spots locked up for months can’t really generate excitement until those playoffs actually arrive, unless you’re the Dodgers. Playoff expansion was supposed to bring anticipation and excitement to places it doesn’t normally live. Look at the numbers and tell us.
Of course, what we know is that the real reason was the expanded money from TV networks for more playoff games, which goes to all teams whether they’re in the playoffs or not. Which only softens that lack of additional fans attending games that they’ve come to realize don’t really mean anything. MLB can shrug off the lack of heightened ratings or attendance with the bigger checks from TBS, FOX, and ESPN.
That doesn’t imply they’ll cease pissing in our ear after they bang the drum for 14 playoff groups although.