Posted by Andy on November 19, 2009
Wired magazine recently published a short opinion piece about the suggestion that American professional sports consider changing their playoff system to be more similar to the one used in European soccer. Over the pond, each soccer league is split into levels. Teams that finish with the worst record (or records) in a given level are demoted to the next lower level, while teams winning lower levels can climb up to a next higher one. I don't know a lot of the specifics of how these leagues work, but that is the basic idea as I understand it.
The Wired article suggests that the guys who have come up with the suggestion feel that this sort of system used in MLB would encourage creation of new teams, take away some leverage from ownership (such as threats of moving the team) and force all teams to be as competitive as possible to avoid the lower levels.
My friend Eric P brought the article to my attention and we discussed how such a baseball playoff system might look in baseball. I'm not suggesting this is a good idea--here's just a summary of what we discussed.
First, we limited our discussion to the current 30 teams and how such a system might perhaps increase competitive balance while also making the full season more meaningful for a larger fraction of the teams.
Suppose we break the 30 teams into 6 levels, each containing 5 teams. Let's go by 2009 records to determine the levels.
Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies
Rockies, Cardinals, Giants, Rangers, Marlins
Twins, Braves, Tigers, Mariners, Rays
Cubs, Brewers, White Sox, Reds, Blue Jays
Athletics, Padres, Astros, Diamondbacks, Mets
Indians, Royals, Orioles, Pirates, Nationals
So here are some thoughts on how such a league would work in 2010 and forward:
- Teams play a fairly unbalanced schedule against mostly teams within their own level. For example, Level 1 teams play 18 games each against the 4 other teams in their level, 6 games each against the teams in Level 2, and 3 games each against the teams in Levels 3, 4, 5, and 6. That's 72 games against Level 1, 30 games against Level 2, and 60 games against Levels 3 through 6, for a total of 162 games.
- The top four teams from each level make the playoffs. The seeding and home-field advantage are determined by best records. There are six sets of playoffs. The ultimate winner from Level is is the overall champion. The winner from the playoffs in Levels 2 through 6 moves up to the next higher level. The team in each level that did not make the playoffs drops down to the next lower level, with the exception of the worst team in Level 6, which can't drop to a lower level.
Again, I'm not suggesting that this idea is necessarily wonderful, but it does offer some interesting benefits:
- By adding the extra playoff series the lower levels, there are more games and therefore more revenue. MLB will never change anything about the game unless they see more revenue.
- By virtue of the ability to move up or down, many more teams will remain invested in game outcomes for most of the year. Fans will remain interested too, especially those in Level 2 or 3 who hope to move up a level. It might be OK to have the moving team determined strictly by best or worst record (and not add the lower level playoffs) but again that would eliminate the extra game revenue.
- By having the in-level unbalanced schedule, there would be new rivalries that would remain somewhat constant from year-to-year. For example, in 2010 there would be lots of games between the Braves and Twins and the Cubs and White Sox. Those rivalries would continue until one team moved up or down from its current level.
However there are many negatives:
- At the beginning of each year, the overall champion can come from only the 5 Level 1 teams, regardless of how well those teams actually play. It gives those teams an unfair advantage. It also means that no team can ever have a significant reversal, such as Tampa Bay making it all the way to the World Series in 2008 after never having had a winning season.
- The scheduling would be a nightmare and in all likelihood, impossible. The 2010 schedule couldn't have been created until the end of the 2009 season, which isn't enough time. Also, check out what Level 1 would be like in 2010: three east coast teams and two west coast teams. That means that Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies fans would have to deal with 27 games on the west coast, and these games are against primary rivals. Imagine, too, if there were 4 west coast teams in Level 1 with a single east coast team. That team would be flying west for 36 in-level games (as well as other out-of-level games against west coast opponents.) It would be such a disadvantage for that team. (Of course, the Mariners face such a disadvantage now by having no nearby divisional rival. Even the Althletics are a multi-hour plane flight away. Compare this to the proximity of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, and Pittsburgh.)
- The teams in the lower levels know that they can't compete for the championship for a minimum of a certain number of years For example it takes a minimum of 5 years to move from Level 6 to Level 1, and only then if the team wins its level every single season. This goes against the spirit of professional sports as we know it in the U.S., where hope springs eternal and any team can have championship aspirations each season. The idea of keeping fans interested would probably backfire for a team like the Royals, which by such a system would have been stuck in the doldrums for many consecutive years.
The true spirit of the Wired article is different from what I suggest above. To follow its suggestion would mean something more like this:
- Create a 12-team "developmental league." Any owner can put together players he or she acquires as free agents and pay a yearly fee to place his team in the league. The league fee would need to be quite large to cover costs associated with travel, locating stadiums to play in, etc.
- Each year, the winner of the developmental league moves up to the major leagues, while the major-league team with the worst record moves down to the developmental league. If creating your own baseball team is exceptionally difficult, then the major league team that falls into the D-league should easily win the D-league championship, and the D-league team playing in MLB should finish with by far the worst record. Then they just switch places the following year. Eventually, though, as things develop, the D-league might get good enough to be able to promote some of its teams to the majors and keep them there.
- Falling out of the MLB and into the D-league would represent a major loss of revenue for that team and therefore should strongly motivate the owners of all teams to try to avoid losing a lot of games.
It seems remarkably unlikely that the playoff system in MLB will ever shift to anything akin to what I've written here, but I still find it fun to think about.