Major League Baseball is opening the playoffs Tuesday with four of its most storied franchises playing in the two Wild Card games.
If the NHL has its Original Six franchises, these four would be considered charter members of MLB’s Original 16. They are the top four World Series winners in history, combining to capture 54 titles. The Yanks lead overall with 27 and the Cards pace the National League with 11.
The Red Sox have nine, four of them since 2004, and the Dodgers last year won their seventh World Series—their sixth since moving from Brooklyn in 1958—by defeating the Tampa Bay Rays.
And by the time the four Division Series start on Thursday, two of those teams will be gone. That could have profound implications on this postseason’s overall gross revenue and the financial pool from which the players draw their prize money, not to mention television ratings.
The Dodgers face this possibility after tying a club record with 106 wins, falling one game short of the San Francisco Giants, who won the NL West with a franchise record 107 victories.
While the Giants prevailed on the final day, the Dodgers swept Milwaukee over the weekend but lost two of their top players, potentially for the entire postseason: pitcher Clayton Kershaw with left forearm tightness and slugger Max Muncy, who hurt his left elbow in a collision at first base.
Under those circumstances, a one-game elimination against a Cardinals team that played into the NL’s second Wild Card spot with a 17-game winning streak in September hardly seems fair.
It will be Max Scherzer for the Dodgers against Adam Wainwright for the Cards in a battle of veteran right-handers.
“For the regular season I’m really proud of our guys,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts after his club’s streak of eight NL West titles came to an end. “To go through what we went through and win a lot of ballgames, it was a great regular season. You have to give credit to the Giants. They had an even better regular season. They took it from us.
“This is not the path we planned out, but we know we have to focus on the ballgame on Wednesday.”
The Yankees and Red Sox were both hit hard by COVID this season, with Boston losing as many as 18 players heading into the stretch run for the Wild Card berth. Both teams finished with 92 wins, the Red Sox owning a 10-9 margin in the season series, giving them home-field advantage for the Wild Card game.
The two teams have a long playoff history at Fenway—the Yankees winning the one-game Bucky Dent home run game in 1978 for the AL East title, while the Red Sox came from behind in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series and an 0-3 deficit to ultimately go on to win their first World Series since 1918.
“Not everybody gets to play in these games,” said Gerrit Cole, who’s slated to start against Boston’s Nathan Eovaldi. “And here we are. We have to take full advantage of it.”
The Dodgers and Yankees play in the largest capacity ballparks in the Majors, and as possible Wild Card winners, won’t have home field advantage in the next two rounds, although the pennant-winner with the best record can still host the World Series. That’s less money in their own coffers and potentially less for the players.
According to the Basic Agreement, the players earn 50% of the gate receipts for each Wild Card game after deducting up to $100,000 in expenses for the visiting clubs; 60% of the revenue for the first three games of each Division Series; and 60% of the proceeds for the first four games of the Championship Series and World Series. The competing clubs evenly split the remaining 40% less expenses, and 100% of any other games played, if necessary.
The longer the series, the more money goes into the pockets of ownership.
Even with ballparks hosting at far less than capacity until mid-June based on local coronavirus health restrictions, the Dodgers led MLB with home attendance of 2.8 million. The Cardinals were fourth at 2.1 million. The Yanks ranked eighth at 1.86 million, limited in the the season’s opening months to 10-20% capacity. The Red Sox were 11th at 1.7 million, playing in their ancient 37,755-capacity yard.
The Dodgers and Yankees were also one-two in player payroll, with the Dodgers at a record $267.2 million—almost $60 million over this season’s $210 million luxury tax threshold. The Yankees were at $203 million, the Red Sox sixth at $185.5 million, and the Cardinals ninth at $169 million.
According to Sportico’s own valuations, the Yankees ($6.75 billion), Red Sox ($4.8 billion) and the Dodgers ($4.62 billion) are MLB’s top three valued franchises.
Last year, when the regular season was abbreviated to 60 games and operating losses were at about $3 billion throughout the league, the playoff format was expanded to 16 teams, including a one-week, play-in best-of-three round consisting of eight series.
The playoff prize money was $50 million, because fans weren’t allowed to attend until the six World Series games, and even then, capacity was limited to about 11,500 spectators per game.
MLB wanted to expand the postseason again this season, but the league tied it to using the DH in the NL and the MLB Players Association shut down those negotiations.
Thus, the rules of the 2016 Basic Agreement are back in effect. There are 10 teams in the playoffs and the pool should be close to 2019 when, according to MLB, $80.9 million was distributed among the participants, with a full share of $382,358.18 awarded to each member of the World Series-winning Washington Nationals for beating the Houston Astros in seven games.
That was down marginally from 2018, when the Red Sox received $416,837.72 each in full shares for defeating the Dodgers in five games.
The World Series winner receives 36% of the pool with the other 64% split in a sliding scale among the other nine teams.
The money and the competition will all play itself out in the weeks ahead. First there’s these Wild Card games, noted Aaron Boone, the Yanks manager who’s also a big part of Yankees-Red Sox lore. His 11th inning homer won Game 7 and the 2003 AL pennant over Boston at the old Yankee Stadium.
“Look, I mean, it’s probably not perfect this way,” Boone said. “But if we win, I’ll feel great about it.”
(The story was updated to correct details on which teams would host a World Series.)