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MLB considering dramatic upheaval to playoffs

Major League Baseball is considering a dramatic expansion to its postseason to allow four additional teams, and higher-seeded Wild Card teams to select their opponents in a reality show-type forum.

In a proposal first reported by the New York Post, the new format under consideration would expand MLB’s playoffs from the current 10 teams to 14. The division-winning team with the best overall record in each of the American and National Leagues would receive a bye to the Division Series round.

The remaining six teams in each of the AL and NL would then play in a radically reformatted three-game Wild Card round in which teams with better records, and thus higher seeds, would select their opponents, instead of automatically formatting by win totals. The opponent selections would be televised in a high-profile show not unlike Selection Sunday each March in which the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament brackets are announced.

The League Championship Series and World Series would continue as before, and be played after the new Wild Card round and Division Series round.

MLB has long mused about expanding its postseason, currently the most restrictive of any major US sport to reach, as a means to expand fan interest and perhaps counteract an ongoing multiyear decline in attendance. 

There is also a prominent media angle, as the league’s national cable rights agreements with ESPN and Turner expire after the 2021 season. Its recently renewed deal with Fox runs through 2028. But the selection show would undoubtedly create additional content for broadcasters, and an increased amount of clinch-potential and sudden-death games. 

MLB must collectively bargain any playoff format changes with the MLB Players Association. And that league-union relationship is in a relatively fragile state after several years of player complaints about historically slow free agent markets and teams allegedly not making best efforts to win. 

Union executive director Tony Clark said he prefers to have a postseason conversation within the greater context of CBA discussions that have already started. The current labor deal expires after the 2021 season, and as such, MLB is eyeing a potential 2022 rollout for the new postseason format.

“Expanding the playoffs in a sensible way is something worth discussing when part of a much more comprehensive conversation about the current state of our game,” Clark said.

Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer was not nearly as diplomatic, openly blasting the idea and league commissioner Rob Manfred in a tweet late on February 10. 

“No idea who made this new playoff format proposal, but Rob is responsible for releasing it, so I’ll direct this to you, Rob Manfred,” Bauer tweeted. “Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on Twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball. You’re a joke.”

MLB’s playoff format was last revised in 2012 with the introduction of the one-game Wild Card round for non-division winners.

The NFL is also seeking a 17th regular season game in its own expansion of competition, in part to provide more top-tier content to broadcasters in the next round of rights deals.