Inside sports business
Adding a second wild-card team in baseball was always more about the business of what’s happening right now as opposed to what might transpire down the September stretch.
Sure, fans are thrilled by the prospect of playoff logjams and more live-or-die moments those final weeks. But this format change was all about the individual club owners, who now, thanks to the added spot, can spend the next several months giving off the impression their team will be one of those eventually keeping late-season races tight.
And that can be real good for business.
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It’s tough to sell tickets or keep people watching television when your team hasn’t contended beyond May since Lloyd McClendon was hitting in games Joe Girardi was catching in.
But now, with the added playoff spot, everybody gets to claim they are contending a little longer without even fibbing.
As of Monday, there were 25 of 30 teams still within 5½ games of the playoffs. Things are particularly tight in the American League, where only the Tampa Bay Rays appear to be out of it with the season nearing the halfway point.
And that’s no fluke. MLB commissioner Bud Selig and others designed it that way.
“Clubs really want it,’’ Selig said at the 2011 baseball winter meetings. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue that the clubs want more than to have the extra wild card, this year.’’
Well, of course they do.
It’s easier to sell tickets in June, July and August when fans think they’re cheering a possible September contender. Easier to keep television ratings high so regional sports network deals continue to have billions attached instead of mere millions.
As of Tuesday, the Mariners, having snapped a five-game losing streak with back-to-back victories, were only 1½ games out of the second wild-card slot. They are averaging 23,842 spectators at Safeco Field versus 20,834 at this point last season.
And crowds aren’t always a complete indicator of fan interest.
The Kansas City Royals didn’t make the playoffs last year, but that second wild card kept them in contention. And while their crowds barely grew, Forbes reported their TV numbers jumped by the highest in baseball, 71 percent.
Where teams typically start to notice a crowd bump is midsummer, when warmer weather boosts walk-up sales. Teams that are surprise contenders typically don’t have big season-ticket bases, while fans also might wait longer before buying into the notion they are for real.
The Baltimore Orioles discovered this in 2012, when, after years of irrelevance, they held the second wild-card spot in July. Few fans or pundits believed they’d stay there, but they did, and their crowds grew bigger as July and August went by.
Once the season ended, their crowds were up 21 percent and their TV numbers jumped 42 percent.
Another thing the Orioles showed is what merely being in contention can do for a team. Robert Andino, a key member of that squad, told me his teammates envisioned the finish line just two months away and wondered: “Why not us?’’
They began believing in themselves. They relished heading into extra innings and won the vast majority of such games. In the end, the Orioles outperformed their perceived talent level to the point they captured the first wild-card spot and not the second.
They aren’t the only ones that happened to.
Last year, the Cleveland Indians would have been six games out and trailing four teams Sept. 1 had baseball still had one wild-card spot. But the new format meant they were only 4½ games behind the Rays with a soft schedule remaining.
Instead of playing out the string, the added wild card gave the Indians hope. It kept them alive long enough to finish the season with 10 consecutive wins that vaulted them into the top wild-card spot.
That’s why it’s still too early to laugh at the Minnesota Twins for inking Kendrys Morales. Sure, rebuilding and sub-.500 teams usually don’t go after a veteran bat in-season.
But the Twins entered Monday only 3½ games out of the playoffs.
They’d also seen attendance drop 11 percent last year, while local TV numbers plummeted steadily from three consecutive seasons of 90-plus losses.
In other words, giving their fans hope — even if it proves fleeting — could stand to help the bottom line more than it hurts.
If the Twins stay in contention, the Morales deal pays for itself. And if they falter by late July, there will be plenty of additional “contenders” to flip Morales to.
MLB also hopes the new format can help teams avoid losing a generation of fans to an endless cycle of rebuilding with no hope for contention. The Indians, Orioles, Blue Jays and Mariners all drew 3.5 million fans annually, before perennial non-contention halved those numbers.
Today, teams and fans in more cities can see sunnier skies. The universal hope seemingly found in all cities at the onset of spring training has been extended well into June.
Which is exactly what MLB, with its eye on the bottom line, intended all along.
Geoff Baker is a sports enterprise and investigative reporter who writes a column on sports business. Baker: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8286. On Twitter: @GeoffBakerTIMES