The problem with the regular season

Can it be fixed?

Rob Manfred has come under fire recently for proposed radical changes to the MLB Postseason. Photo provided by

Bennett Carollo, Sports Editor

The most exciting time in any of the major sports is undoubtedly the playoffs. Come playoff time, the NBA brings the compelling storylines, the NFL has must-watch win or go home games, the NHL is known for intensity and excitement, and the MLB showcases drama and tension. Players always play harder and with more emotion in the playoffs because their teams’ seasons are on the line and they are playing for a chance to win their respective sport’s most important trophy and to call themselves champions. Of course, the side effect of the magic that is the playoffs is that the regular seasons look less enticing in comparison. This is likely one of the problems that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred wants to address, as he recently revealed a proposal to add four more teams to the Postseason and to allow higher finishing teams to choose the opponent that they will play first. This crazy second part of the proposal is absurd for obvious reasons but isn’t the focus of this discussion. Rather, the implications of adding more playoff teams is the more relevant development at play.

By adding more Postseason spots, Manfred probably hopes that the regular season will become more exciting for fans, as more organizations will be able to justify fielding competitive teams if their playoff chances increase and there will also be more playoff races to follow throughout the season. However, this plan also runs the risk of ultimately making the regular season less meaningful as a whole. As it stands, the MLB is essentially the last league where making the playoffs is still a notable feat and where the group of playoff teams is a prestigious club of only the most elite squads from each season. This is because ten out of the 30 MLB teams currently qualify for the Postseason, compared to 16 in the NHL and NBA, which have 31 and 30 teams respectively. The result in these other leagues has been a watered down, less meaningful, and oftentimes pointless regular season.

The meaningless regular season is no more apparent than in today’s NBA. “Load management,” the practice of scratching players from games when they are healthy, has become a popular strategy used by the league’s top teams, such as the Los Angeles Clippers with Kawhi Leonard. This is a highly detrimental practice towards the quality and attractiveness of the NBA’s product, as star players are more important in this league than any other. Fans have taken notice, as ratings have dropped throughout the Association in the regular season. Fans no longer see the point of tuning in to or attending games when star players may be sitting out. Load management has become so common because NBA teams have realized just how meaningless the regular season is. The Clippers, for instance, are 12.5 games clear of the ninth seeded Trail Blazers, the first team out of the playoff picture in the Western Conference as of February 12th. With their playoff berth all but guaranteed, even with 28 games still left to be played, the Clippers see no reason not to rest Leonard so that he is fresh and not injured when the games matter again. Where they are seeded is mostly irrelevant, seeing as, once the playoffs start, every team needs the same 16 wins to hoist the trophy. Undeserving teams, including those with losing records, often slip into the NBA playoffs due to the sheer amount of playoff spots available, making the accomplishment hardly one at all. This tends to lead to lopsided opening round series, as the league’s top teams dismantle these mediocre qualifiers. Even when upsets do happen, and they are very rare, they only further emphasize the insignificance of the regular season. In the NHL, on the other hand, the upsets are the problem.

The NHL is set up identically to the NBA in terms of number of playoff qualifiers and playoff rounds. However, hockey, by nature, is much more random and luck-based than basketball. For this reason, there is far more parity in the league as a whole and upsets in the playoffs are not uncommon. This functions to make regular season performance irrelevant, which can seem unfair at times. As long as a team finishes in the top eight in their conference, they have as good a shot as anyone to bring home the Stanley Cup. There is no better example of this than the already infamous first round collapse of the Tampa Bay Lightning at the hands of Columbus in last year’s playoffs. The Lightning finished with thirty more points than the Blue Jackets in the regular season and tied a league record for wins, but the playing field was immediately leveled when the playoffs started. Give Columbus credit for immediately erasing all those regular season accomplishments with a sweep, but the question remains of whether they should’ve even gotten the chance to do so considering their middle of the pack finish. They wouldn’t have sniffed postseason play in a format such as the one the MLB currently employs. Now, I have only fleeting interest in regular season Lightning games, seeing as they will almost definitely make the playoffs and nothing they do will matter until then.

Admittedly, the NFL has a playoff format that rivals the exclusivity and fairness of the MLB’s present system. For one, only 12 out of 32 teams qualify. Additionally, and more significantly, first round byes are awarded to the top two teams in each conference, rewarding them for superior regular season performance. Home field advantage that is given to higher seeds in all sports’ playoffs is actually important in football, as well, where noise can be a major factor. The NFL regular season is also very short, at only 16 games, and thus this league doesn’t really have the problem that the others have of the regular season losing its luster. MLB teams, on the other hand, play marathon 162 game seasons, making me wary of the new proposal. There would be first round byes for the top seeds, which is one positive aspect of it. Even still, it would be a travesty for Manfred to allow teams barely over .500 to start making the playoffs and be given the chance to eliminate 100 plus win clubs in the span of a few days. This is especially true when baseball, even more so than hockey, can be incredibly random. Oftentimes, a few hot players in the Postseason can carry a team all the way to a World Series title. For the sake of keeping the regular season meaningful and ensuring that only the best teams are contending for World Champion status, it is in the best interest of the MLB to keep the format as is. At the very least, if the regular season’s importance must be diminished in order to reinvigorate interest in baseball and raise attendance, the new format should come with a shortened regular season. There is no reason for teams to play so many games if they may be bounced by inferior clubs in a short playoff series. However, it is unlikely that this will ever happen due to the major motivating factor behind Manfred’s new plan: revenue.