Much has been written about the increases in minimum player salaries and the competitive balance tax thresholds included in Major League Baseball’s new CBA. But one change that has received far less attention is the dramatic revamp of the league schedule. Beginning in 2023, teams will play fewer intradivision games (14 as opposed to 19), and every club will play at least one three-game series against each of the 29 other clubs every season. Former New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates executive Lou DePaoli said the decision by MLB and MLBPA to alter the scheduling format was wise. Having more games against different opponents “can make a tremendous impact on TV ratings, attendance and revenue” and be a valuable tool to market the game and its stars.
JWS’ Take: It is no surprise DePaoli supports the scheduling changes. He created an almost exact replica of this plan for MLB more than a decade ago. The only difference is the number of rivalry games. His model “had teams playing their interleague rivals six times a year. Three [at home] and three [on the road]. They went with two and two,” DePaoli said.
DePaoli embraced a balanced schedule following the 2008 season. (He isn’t the only one to advocate for scheduling changes through the years.) The Pirates “just had the Yankees in town for interleague play for the first time that year, and [I thought] to myself, how can that be? Interleague has been going on since 1997. There is something wrong with the system.”
He devised a plan that would ensure the Pirates would host top drawing teams more often and presented it to baseball’s leadership “multiple times” over the next 10 years. “I talked to Rob Manfred about it,” he said. “I talked with [former MLBAM CEO] Bob Bowman about. I met with the former [COO of MLB] Tony Petitti and [chief operations and strategy officer] Chris Marinak. I was on Major League Baseball’s first scheduling committee and pitched this [idea] there. And everybody thought it was a great idea. But nobody ever really wanted to do it.”
DePaoli said the league always found reasons to stick with a slate heavy on intradivision games. “Initially there were [concerns] about extra travel. Then it was “we can’t [do more interleague] until we get the DH in both leagues. They didn’t think they could get the owners’ support for it—that the change was too radical.”
In fact, the league was considering playing even more divisional games, believing rivalries drove attendance and television viewership. That was true for Yankees-Red Sox matchups but not the case for most intradivision series. MLB also didn’t want to increase the number of interleague games played late in the season for fear they would determine the outcome of pennant races.
Times have changed. MLB’s Marinak said there were really two developments that allowed the league to balance the schedule. “One, we’ve made substantial improvements on our side in terms of how we build a major league schedule. We [now] have a much more rigorous process around the analytics [and] modeling that goes into building a schedule. We can optimize much more efficiently how we design road trips, alleviating player concerns around increased travel.”
The second was the adoption of a common DH rule across both leagues (as agreed upon in the new CBA). Marinak explained: “Seeing the DH in the National League during the 2020 season got a lot of people in [that] league who were conservative more comfortable with it. That [experience] unlocked moving to this model, because what you are going to see now is 46 interleague games per team. The common sentiment [had been] you can’t play 46 [interleague] games under two different league rules because it’s just not fair in terms of roster construction.” A designated hitter would have missed ~14% of his team’s games while playing in NL parks.
Under the previous format, depending on the year, clubs play 17 or 18 different teams at home each season. But the unbalanced nature of the schedule means a club could go as many as six seasons between hosting a specific interleague opponent. Marinek noted that Albert Pujols made just a single return visit to St. Louis during his decade with the Angels.
The new schedule ensures every team plays host to 22 teams each season and all 29 other clubs visit at least every other year. “If every team is playing each other [more often, the league is] giving fans in every market the chance to see all of the great ballplayers [and teams].” That should “really [help to] grow the game,” DePaoli said.
The new model also “allows the teams that draw well on the road—the Yankees, the Cubs, the Red Sox, the Dodgers, the Giants—to play in four or five more ballparks every year. So, it is a very simple way to grow attendance [around the league],” DePaoli noted.
DePaoli does not believe the schedule change will translate into tens of millions of dollars. But he says it will undoubtedly create more revenue than teams are pulling in today. Putting variables like weather and the day of the week aside, replacing a regularly scheduled “D level” opponent (in terms of being a road draw) with a game against a ”C level” club that doesn’t come to town as often could easily result in a club selling an extra 5,000 tickets. If one assumed the average yield on those seats is $40, that would mean a $200,000 lift solely from ticket sales. Over a three-game series, the schedule change could add more than a half million dollars to the team’s bottom line—and remember, that is before parking or concession proceeds. “For some better opponents, the difference [in tickets sold] can be even more significant,” he noted.
The opportunity to see different players and teams could positively affect TV viewership, too. DePaoli thinks it might even help MLB attract a younger audience. He theorizes with kids today following players more than teams, “if you put those players against their local team more frequently, it’s going to help [increase] their engagement levels.” Of course, that engagement may come across social media.
Ed Desser (president, Desser Sports Media) is not convinced a rise in viewership would be significant enough by itself to warrant an increase in local TV revenues. “In any given year [more interleague games] will be better for some teams and worse for others. [So], it should pretty much net out. I don’t really see much overall impact on RSNs on a national basis,” he said.
The change in format should also help flatten the strength of schedule problems that have plagued baseball. “This new format has an increase in the number of common opponents,” Marinak said. “In a world where we added another wildcard spot and there’s more opportunity to get into the playoffs, [playing a more balanced schedule] makes it a little bit more even” for teams competing from different divisions. Remember, in addition to the opportunity to compete for a World Series, there is financial upside to qualifying for and progressing throughout the playoffs.