I’ve seen several comments recently, and have seen and heard them in past seasons, regarding how bad it is for MLB when two of their ‘lesser lights’ franchises manage to go far into the postseason. These smaller market teams generate little national interest and television ratings drop like a stone. These comments come from MLB owners and MLB officials, as well as the broadcast networks, usually shielded by using the print media as the messenger.
For their own part, in these situations the media interest is more focused on the novelty of seeing these teams in big games rather than repecting them as valid champions. What then are fans to think of those teams?
Now from a business standpoint, from the standpoint of making money, these complaints are certainly understandable. It’s the same reason movie studios pay big money for the superstars. After all, they could get any actor if they wanted, but people will watch the megastars even in a clunker.
So what to do?
Well one thing MLB could do would be to bring the ‘lesser lights’ teams up to a more equitable level with the big guys. This would not only require some sort of salary cap/competitive balance idea, but also that MLB spend their promotional money to put more focus on the smaller market teams. MLB doing any of these things is highly unlikely. And it is highly questionable that it would work anyway.
Baseball is a very traditional sport. The pace of the game itself is reflected in it’s cultivation of it’s fans. I believe it takes generations for teams to develop identities and to build a loyal fan base. Even with changes in ownership and venue, these traditional identities are hard to change.
For that reason the older franchises will almost always attract more attention nationally than newer ones. In fact, they attract more fans nationally even when they are a losing team than many newer franchises do that are winners. More people around the country will admit to being an Indians, Cubs, Pirates or even Phillies fan than a Diamondbacks or Marlins fan. So naturally enough when these ‘newer’ franchises reach the WS, regardless of their geographic locale, there is less national interest.
Of all the expansion teams, I think Houston, after 45 years (two generations) is the closest to having built any loyal fan base outside of their local area. The Expos, Padres, Brewers, even Blue Jays, Twins and Mariners? Not even close.
There is also the plain truth that some franchises are located in cities that simply are not ‘baseball towns’. Is Denver a baseball town? Was Montreal? Sure, they had nice AAA teams, but those were linked to other MLB teams. Is Tampa Bay?
More importantly, will they ever become baseball towns? I think not. There is nothing un-American about it. Baseball is just not something easily embraced in those locations. Seattle? (Maybe more so now with the influx of Asian-Americans).
So I think it is time for MLB to seriously consider contraction. This solves several problems.
- It eliminates teams that cannot or will not compete. It is ridiculous to punish successful teams by making them support the bad ones. You are in a sense asking the Yankees to pay money so they will at least have somebody to play against.
- It can allow for the season to be shortened. First, by reducing the number of playoff teams, and secondly by perhaps reducing the number of games back to 154.
- It allows for better competition and a higher talent level, currently watered-down to embarassing levels by constant expansion. With fewer teams, the caliber of play would certainly improve.
- It better ensures that good teams make the post-season, and that there will be a national interest in the championship no matter who is in it.
How many teams should there be? From the current 30 teams I would suggest that baseball reduce to 24 teams, 12 in each league, 6 each in an Eastern and Western Division. The 4 division champions play for the championship.
How do you select the 6 teams to be eliminated? There are several ways, based on demographics, for example, or evaluation of ownership, or by the performance over time of the franchise. But I think that no matter what method they finally devise, it must be based on looking at baseball nationally, not locally. No matter how faithful a following a team might have locally, if that team does not benefit baseball overall, they should be considered to be contracted.
If I was to choose today, I would choose 6 from the following 10 teams:
Washington Tampa Bay
Milwaukee Kansas City
Of those, my current vote would be to keep Pittsburgh, KC, Toronto and Minnesota. But let’s look at two scenarios, conservative and radical.
First, if you wanted to maintain AL-NL integrity, you would want each at 12 teams, so to avoid having a team switch leagues, you would contract Tampa Bay and Kansas City from the AL, and Washington, Florida, Colorado and Milwaukee from the NL. The divisions would then look like this:
If you wanted a more radical re-alignment, you would keep Kansas City and contract Arizona, leaving you with this, which is much more travel friendly, but involves much more switching of leagues:
You can choose which belong to the AL and which belong to the NL, or actually scrap the idea of AL and NL altogether, simply having Eastern champs playoff for a WS slot, and Western champs do the same. This would also require standardization of baseball rules, such as use of the DH.
Current ‘lesser lights’ like KC, Pittsburgh, Oakland and Minnesota should be helped by this re-alignment, which brings in more revenue and cuts travel. It also promotes the so-called local rivalries that are now used as the excuse for interleague play.
In the longterm, contraction would better support the health and prosperity of baseball in the United States. With cable and internet today, it is no longer necessary to have MLB physically present in every corner of the country. In fact, nothing says that some series could not be played at ‘neutral’ sites each season. For example, each team might play 6 games total each year at non-MLB cities, such as Denver, Milwaukee, Miami, etc. If there were 8 such cities, they would each get 3 series a year, featuring 2 different teams each series. If properly promoted by MLB, these neutral site games would keep MLB visible throughout the country during the season.
Of course, the MLBPA would fight all contraction tooth and nail, since 20% of player jobs would be gone. But a more enlightened leadership than Donald Fehr might be able to look at the bigger picture and see that baseball as it is now structured doesn’t work longterm. There is little interest from native-born athletes to go into baseball. The fan base is older. The game itself is being constantly tinkered with to keep interest up. The season is too long and there are too many bad teams.
The 20% loss of jobs would be better made up in the next expansion, which I would advocate be an international expansion. This might entail a league in Latin America and one in Asia, comprised of existing franchises in those regions or of new franchises set up in partnership between MLB and local owners. These international leagues would not play against the US teams except in a true WS, which would eventually take place.
In this way baseball in the US might be revived and interest maintained througout the regular and postseason.