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MLB’s 2020 postseason to expand to 16 teams

A scene from Major League Baseball's 2020 season-opening game between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Major League Baseball and MLB Players Association have struck a new deal to expand the 2020 postseason from 10 teams to 16, just weeks after fractious labor negotiations to restart the season amid the Covid-19 pandemic ended without such an agreement. 

Mere hours before the start of the league’s season-opening game on July 23 between the New York Yankees and Washington Nationals, which was the deadline to implement a new competitive format for this year, management and players were able to agree on a new playoff format that will start with eight separate three-game series preceding the traditional rounds of Division Series, League Championship Series, and the World Series. 

In the new structure, all division winners and second-place teams will automatically qualify for the playoffs. The seventh and eighth seeds in the American League and National League playoffs will be determined by the best records of remaining teams. Teams will be seeded based on regular-season records.

“This season will be a sprint to a new format that will allow more fans to experience playoff baseball,” said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. “We look forward to a memorable postseason concluding a year like no other.”

Longtime media rights partner ESPN will carry the vast majority of the newly added games, getting exclusive rights to seven of the eight newly created first-round series. TBS will carry the eighth one. Industry sources said there was no additional rights fees involved, and rather, the additional inventory essentially represent make-goods following the loss of nearly two-thirds of the regular season due to the pandemic.

Still, the move likely represents a robust long-term revenue driver as the playoff expansion makes it much more unlikely the parties will revert later to the prior format. Postseason formats in future seasons, however, will remain subject to future bargaining.

For ESPN this season, the new inventory will comprise a jam-packed, four-day stretch of baseball between September 29 and October 2 when those games will be played.

“This is an exciting opportunity for ESPN and Major League Baseball to deliver a new, compelling live sports experience to fans,” said ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro. “Innovation has been a cornerstone of our 30-plus year relationship with MLB, and that will be on display as we showcase these decisive games. We know fans have been craving live baseball and we’re proud to work with our friends at MLB to offer what will be a special four days this fall.”

As part of the MLB-MLBPA agreement, players will be guaranteed a minimum $50m compensation pool for the postseason. That pool in prior years was generated through gate receipts from certain playoff games, and last year reached $80.86m, the third largest such figure in league history. But with no fans allowed to MLB games currently, and perhaps not during the postseason either, the guaranteed money provides a measure of financial security for players. That money could still rise if fans allowed in ballparks by this fall.

“The opportunity to add playoff games in this already-abbreviated season makes sense for fans, the league, and players,” said Tony Clark, MLBPA executive director. “We hope it will result in highly competitive pennant races as well as exciting additional playoff games to the benefit of the industry and all involved heading into next year.”

The shift, however, also turns the most restrictive playoff format in major US pro sports into one of its more permissive ones. In the new format, 53.3 per cent of MLB’s 30 teams will not quality for the playoffs. And if this new structure had been used previously, 46 teams with losing records between 1995 and 2019 would have reached the postseason, according to Elias Spots Bureau.

Sixteen of 30 teams also qualify for the National Basketball Playoffs. Sixteen of 31 National Hockey League teams, 51.6 per cent, reach that entity’s playoffs, with that league’s 32nd franchise, the Seattle Kraken, set to arrive with the 2021-22 season. And following the National Football League’s planned playoff expansion going into effect for the 2020 season, 14 of 32 teams, or 43.7 per cent, there will make the playoffs.