Ratto: When you attract less, offer more

MLB is signing on to the thing everyone else is finally all-in on — game bloat

Ray Ratto
February 11, 2020 - 12:04 pm
Ratto: When you attract less, offer more

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The reported playoff plan Major League Baseball is contemplating for the 2022 season — the one that adds two wild card teams to both leagues and creates a tiered pick-your-opponent system — has been the beneficial talking point that the Mookie Betts-salary tax seminar wasn't, the gut-the-minor-leagues threat and subsequent Congressional clapback definitely wasn't and that the garbage can scandal surely wasn't.

In other words, in the world of conversational buzz that actually has no value at all, Rob Manfred is 1-for-4.

But even the playoff plan, which as a new idea is that rarest of baseball concepts, isn't new in the one way that probably matters most. It takes a perceived problem — the diminishing interest in the game — and attempts to solve it with more inventory.

It is, in short, the same old idea with a new flatbrimmed cap.

The NFL is obsessed with more inventory. It wants a 17th game from its players, and when it gets that, it will want 18, and all along the way will want increased playoffs. The NBA is talking in-season and pre-playoff competitions while dithering on the concept of reducing its 82-game regular season. The NHL, after sitting out the last Olympics, is leaning toward getting back in in 2022, and is expanding to 32 teams. MLS expands by two teams a month whether or not it should, and is now at 30 teams both real and future. Colleges don't pop up as often, but more and more want to be Division I schools every year (see Liberty, the religious school started by Jerry Falwell because God told him to challenge Appalachian State for Sun Belt supremacy).

In other words, MLB is signing on to the one thing everyone else is finally all-in on — game bloat.

Now it has always been the belief of the little squirrel behind this laptop that more games are better, and that seventh games in playoff series are the most important human achievement since fire. This position, though, does not address the million-ton elephant slopping over all their properties — younger viewers/fans aren't nearly as engaged in measurable ways as they used to be. In the exciting world of demographics, this is a worry across the board.

In that way, offering people more of something they are indifferent to seems counterintuitive. But the key, of course, is that you can't attract more people or charge them appropriately for inventory you don't have, so the trick is to dress up the more as something you've never seen before.

That's the baseball plan in a nutshell. It's a creative bow on an old box, only with baseball, is is directed as the most change-resistant audience in sports, save of course SEC football. It is selling voyeurism and insult (what team picks what other team as the easiest opponent), both of which we like, and stretches out the schedule an extra week into November or backs up the start of the season into mid-March. That, people aren't as keen on.

But you get one, you get all of it, and knowing Manfred's ability to look miserable while promising you something you won't be able to do without, this won't go down easy, either for the audience baseball already has or the one its trying to attract. Especially the second group, which is likely to look at these expanded playoffs and say, "I'm interested in the Phillies players pretending to be mad at the Dodgers players but whatcha got after that? More things I don't watch now? Hard pass, Skippy." Baseball's need to swim faster or die trying will be of little consequence to the audience it is losing.

Look, I have no real opinion on expanded playoffs; the only opinions that matter are those of the networks and how much they are willing to chunk down for them. But this merely pushes back the day when baseball deals with its more structural barriers — that is, if they can. I mean, what happens if this doesn't work?

I know. The Christmas Jamboree and the Spring Training Intraleague Tournament of Champions: "Welcome to today's quarterfinal showdown between Curacao and the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs." I suppose someone wants that, even if the game takes five hours and has only walks, strikeouts and pitching changes.

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