ESPN in favour of permanently expanding MLB's post-season
ESPN, the US sports broadcasting giant, is strongly in favour of making this year's extended post-season format for North America's Major League Baseball a permanent feature, after recording impressive viewing numbers.
Data has shown that during the 16-team post-season, which featured best-of-three first round encounters, instead of one-off matches as was previously the case, ESPN averaged 1.83 million viewers per game, including 2.64 million for the first game between the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, and secured 43.76 million viewers in total.
MLB traditionally has 10 teams in its post-season, but in July this year the league, and its Players Association, agreed to expand this year’s playoffs to 16 teams, and to use a best-of-three series format. The expanded format allowed MLB to retain around $1 billion in national TV revenue (of which a percentage went to players) after losing nearly two-thirds of its regular-season schedule to the coronavirus pandemic.
Burke Magnus, ESPN’s executive vice-president of programming, said: “Overall, we were very happy. It was really difficult to calibrate our expectations with this format being totally new and so different traditionally. It was a four-day, 16-game schedule. But we loved the format and considering all of the competition taking place, we were pleased.”
He added: “We like this format and we hope it stays… It’s way better, in my estimation, than a single wild card game setting that position after a long regular season.”
During the same time as ESPN was showing the post-season, other US sport on offer included basketball’s NBA playoffs, National Hockey League plaoyffs and American football’s NFL.
Noah Garden, MLB's chief revenue officer, added: “I thought it went off great… You had all of the games, eight in one day, with no down time. It just created an atmosphere that we haven’t had in the past.”
ESPN secured exclusive rights to seven of the eight best-of-three series, with TBS carrying the other one. In order to ease the load on ESPN and ESPN2, parent company Walt Disney enlisted ABC, ESPN’s sister network, to help broadcast the games.
Any permanent expanded post-season would need to be approved by the MLBPA, which is reportedly worried about the idea of allowing so many teams - 16 out of 30 - into the playoffs, fearing it might de-incentivise sides from trying to finish as high up the table as possible during the regular campaign.
Rob Manfred, the MLB’s commissioner, has meanwhile proposed a 14-team post-season in future years, keeping the best-of-three format for the first round, but giving the two best teams from the regular season a first-round bye.
Magnus has said, regarding Manfred’s preferences: “I like the 14-team concept because it provides a reward to the overall best record in both leagues. I just hope the best-of-three wildcard round is here to stay. It will still have a winner-go-home game in it."
MLB’s eight-year, $5.6 billion deal with ESPN expires at the end of 2021, and the league is presently having conversations with the broadcaster over a renewal.
Manfred said last month: “We are having ongoing conversations with ESPN. I am hopeful we are going to make an agreement with them. It has probably been a little slower than it might have been because of the whole Covid-distraction issues.”
ESPN shares rights to MLB with Fox and Turner Sports.