Major League Baseball’s playoffs begin Tuesday for the first and perhaps only time with several best-of-three Wild Card Series. The eight series highlight 16 teams in the home parks of the clubs that finished the 60-game COVID-abbreviated regular season with the better records.
The eight winners go on to the League Division Series and life in the bubble for the rest of October.
The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, if they survive their individual mini-series, would then head to Arlington, Tex., to play each other at Globe Life Field in a best-of-five National League Division Series.
Since the best-of-seven NL Championship Series and World Series are also in the new home of the Texas Rangers, the team that wins there could be in the Arlington bubble for three weeks.
That’s not a bad thing, said A.J. Preller, the Padres general manager.
“You get to be in one spot,” he said this week. “That’s a good thing for our players if we get to the LCS and the World Series. We won’t have to bounce around and travel. We have a little bit of familiarity with the ballpark, having played there already this season. Hopefully, the players will be able to use that to their advantage.”
Despite a lot of fits and starts, MLB has finally arrived at this destination: the big revenue pot at the end of the rainbow of a season played without fans and shortened from 162 games in the time of the coronavirus. MLB receives most of its $1.7 billion in national television revenue during the postseason; expanding the playoffs from the usual 43 games to 65 games will result in an increase of about $100 million, or about $4.5 million a game. ESPN/ABC has signed on to air all the games in seven of the eight Wild Card Series, with TBS broadcasting the other.
Half of that revenue, $50 million, will go to the players for the usual postseason prize money. Last year, a full share for each of the members of the World Series-winning Washington Nationals was worth $382,358. The losing Houston Astros took home $256,030.
This year’s pool is low in comparison to the more than $81 million shared last October by the 10 playoff qualifying teams. But revenue is down everywhere this season, in which Commissioner Rob Manfred has claimed publicly that the industry could lose as much as $4 billion. The players have already earned a prorated portion of their salaries to play the shortened regular season.
The player pool is usually derived from gate receipts as stipulated by the basic labor agreement between the owners and players union: Fifty percent of the two Wild Card Games, 60% percent of the first three LDS games in each of the four series, and 60% of the first four games of each LCS and the World Series go to the players.
There will be no fans at the Wild Card rounds, the LDS or the American League Championship Series in San Diego. Manfred has hinted that people may be admitted with appropriate social distancing for the NLCS and World Series in Texas, where the state has already specified that sporting events can be played at 50% capacity.
At Globe Life Field that’s 20,150 of its 40,300.
“We are pressing ahead to have fans in Texas,” Manfred told USA Today, echoing comments he made at a college conference last week. “One of the most important things to our game is the presence of fans. Starting down the path of having fans in stadiums, and in a safe and risk-free environment, is very, very important to our game.”
In that case, the players would earn additional revenue from gate sales of the first four games of the NLCS and World Series, a slight increase above the already-allocated $50 million.
The expanded playoff might not happen again and will be among many rule changes tried this season that will have to be revisited between MLB and the union this winter.
“Go for it,” said Los Angeles Angels manager Joe Maddon, whose team will be one of the 14 clubs left out of the postseason. “Anytime you can keep fans bases engaged a little bit longer, it’s good for the game. It’s not necessarily diluted. I’m good with all that.”
Moving to bubbles during the postseason was precipitated by health and safety concerns. Playing the season with schedules even restricted regionally led to six teams – the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds, New York Mets, Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants – having their games postponed from as little as two days to as much as two weeks when players tested positive for COVID-19.
The NHL, in contrast, reported last weekend there had been no positive tests among the 31,000 administered to players and staff since the teams began the playoffs in the Edmonton and Toronto bubbles Aug. 1. In MLB, 57 players are reported to have tested positive at least once during the season, with dozens more in preseason camps.
“Going into the bubbles is reflective of the advice and the experience we’ve leaned on throughout, meaning we’ve had a number of experts we’ve relied on from the very beginning to offer perspectives, to provide guidance in the best interest of our players and our game,” said Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association.
“There are significant challenges associated with it. Overwhelmingly our players and families outside the bubble during the course of this season have done everything necessary to continue to play while having some semblance of normalcy in the most abnormal of circumstances.”
Playoff teams have now gone into their bubbles for the last days of the regular season. Once family members come in, they can’t go out. The New York Yankees, returning home this weekend to play the Marlins at Yankee Stadium, will be restricted to a hotel, the team bus and the ballpark. The Padres, who fly to San Francisco to finish up against the Giants, will be in the same predicament.
Both the Yankees and Padres won’t be able to leave their respective bubbles now until they are either eliminated or win out in the postseason.
The Yankees are slated to head to San Diego for the next two rounds if they defeat the Minnesota Twins or the Chicago White Sox on the road in the mini-series. The Padres, who haven’t hosted a home playoff game since 2006 and have never won one at downtown Petco Park, should have at least two chances there next week against an opponent that may not be determined until after Sunday’s final day of the regular season.
The Padres haven’t played in the World Series or the NLCS since 1998 at the old stadium in Mission Valley, so it will be odd for them and their fans to being doing so with no one in the stands. And if they win the opening series, then it’s on to Texas.
“I think all of us would like to have 40,000 in the ballpark here,” Preller said. “That would be great. It would be crazy. The fans would be loving it. But you can’t dwell on that. You can’t get hung up on that too much. You can’t lose track and miss the bigger picture. Our guys have done a good job of not getting caught up on what might have been and what could be. It’s part of the year.”