The award -winning publication, Baseball America, ran a story on Wednesday with a leaked proposal being considered by Major League Baseball that would realign the divisions, shorten the regular season, and add more playoff teams. The theory being that the reduction in travel costs will offset the revenue lost from the shortened schedule.
The proposal would eliminate the American League and National League as baseball fans have grown accustomed to throughout the history of the sport. The new realignment would group the teams geographically without allegiances to the current divisional groupings.
The new realignment concept would include expansion of the league by two teams to bring the total number of teams to 32; allowing the realigned proposal to divide the teams evenly. The new plan would create four divisions with eight teams each, and the two teams mentioned in the expansion component are Montreal and Portland, Oregon.
I have covered the expansion plans for all the major sports leagues for about four years now. I completed a huge series of articles on expansion about two years ago which considered several factors for different potential markets for new teams in each sport. These two cities are not surprising as top expansion destinations for baseball to consider at this point.
The support to bring back the Montreal Expos has been growing in the past few years and they have a potential ownership group and a few different sites identified for a downtown ballpark which I covered in a piece I wrote last year. Montreal makes sense because they have a built-in fan base from their first iteration that MLB can draw from and grow. The trepidation that some will have, and it is understandable, is that the city had a team and lost it already, that same type of fan apathy can happen again. That situation would be obviously very unideal for the league.
Portland came in “second place” in the race to get the relocated Expos in the early 2000s. The city has some solid demographic evidence to support a team and some potentially problematic detracting factors (media market size, weak potential corporate sponsorship) and they have no current stadium to support a team.
However, according to this report and some other research, the ownership group in Portland can still access a state grant for funding for a portion of the new stadium which was approved for the pursuit of the Expos relocation and still has not expired.
The last time MLB expanded was in the late 1990s and the valuations on those teams have gone through the roof relative to their initial expansion entry fees. The formula for the expansion fee for the two teams added in this proposal would apply the average franchise valuation and factor in the increased value based on revenue models as well as the average value increase over the past twenty years.
The new expansion fees will provide significant revenue to each owner and would be incentive enough for them to add two new members to the ranks. The newly proposed alignment would put teams like the New York Mets and New York Yankees in the same division. The format would put the Chicago Cubs and Chicago White Sox in the same division, and would break up certain rivalries that the average fan has grown to enjoy.
The Mets would be in a division without any of the other members of their current division, the NL East, and the Minnesota Twins would play all of their road games in the Eastern time zone. The questions will almost certainly arise around the designated hitter rule with the dissolution being proposed of the two league structure in place currently.
The purists are going to have several issues with this proposal including the marked increase in the number of playoff teams. The realigned league would have 12 playoff teams: the four division winners, and eight “wild card” teams that would play each other to determine who plays the four division winners in the Division Series, then the final four teams would compete to determine the World Series participants.
The shortened regular season would lead to more playoff games which would invariably increase the value of the television and media rights deals that MLB would seek to broker with their broadcast partners in the future.
The debate will most certainly be spirited regarding the expanded playoffs and the value of “making the playoffs” only to play a winner takes all one game elimination wild card game. The other side will defend the decision with the rationale that the league will have two more teams, and the expanded number of postseason slots should keep more teams in contention. This will translate into better interest in late season games in more markets which should help attendance levels in late season games with a reduced regular season.
The detractors to this proposal will inevitably feel that the elimination of the divisions we have grown traditionally accustomed to (i.e. AL East, NL West) in favor of a completely different / highly geographic setup which eliminates some historic rivalries will damage the television ratings for the sport.
In my view, baseball is different than the other major sports because it does not have the same national appeal. The television ratings for MLB have proven that it is a regional sport and while the nationally televised “Game of the Week” is nice, that game does not generate ratings the way a national broadcast for the NBA or NFL “Game of the Week”.
The argument could be made that this new proposal will become too specifically focused which could hurt the interest in the sport. A good example is who is going to care about a Baltimore Orioles versus New York Mets game outside of those two markets? Not that many people.
The new proposal is also going to face resistance from certain team owners especially in the western regions and some of the small market teams which will be placed into divisions with several larger market teams. The team owners in the eastern regions and the southern areas will most likely support this type of proposal because it will drastically reduce their travel costs, which is becoming a growing concern for team owners across Major League Baseball.
The league has other issues though that this proposal, or one of similar type, will not repair. The pace of play situation is a huge problem for the sport. The league has been looking at ways to speed up the length of games because millennials and younger people are not interested in anything that takes three to four hours out of their life to do. The average length of a game went down a couple of years ago and this season is up over three hours and five minutes. That needs to get resolved or else they will have a more difficult time maintaining fan interest in the future.
The long- term viability of certain franchises, namely the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays needs to be clarified before they expand and add two new teams to the league. Those two franchises are struggling to generate attendance and revenue and their respective owners are trying to get new stadiums built for them thinking that will solve all of their issues.
The proposal is radical, it is inconceivable to me that they would alter and eliminate the National League and American League and dissolve the current division structure and playoff structure. Then, I think of the changes to the league structures when they moved Houston to the American League which made necessary an interleague series all year long because of the unbalanced number of teams. The MLB offices did that to slowly dissolve the lines between the two leagues, to prepare the fans for something else in the future: one league.
The debate will continue as the months move forward. It should be noted that MLB knew what it was doing when it “leaked” this proposal. This was a calculated move to soften the ground around making these types of changes. It is a test sample, this does not mean this proposal for realignment is set in stone.
Conversely, the league has certain issues that you might consider giving them credit for recognizing: the cost of travel for a whole roster of players and support staff is getting very expensive, the amount of games in different time zones is draining the players, and the season is a six month grind with not enough off days (this proposal would give one day off a week to players and allow for travel the next day rather than overnight flights which can be a safety issue).
Major League Baseball has some issues that they must resolve and they are also trying to adapt to a changing landscape for the viewing of sports content and for maintaining fan interest in a world full of other distractions. This proposal seems radical, bizarre, and doomed to a baseball purist like myself.
However, we must all realize that this was just a test, the real changes are coming down the road, and I cannot imagine how inconceivable the actual realignment will be when it rolls out in the future.