Once 'America's Pastime,' Major League Baseball (MLB) may now best be described as a 'regional' sport. Pockets of passionate fans still fill the stadium seats, but the game no longer captures the national imagination as it once did. Perhaps the best evidence of this is the marked downward slope in World Series viewership over the last two-plus decades; 1990s viewership of the Series averaged 27 million, shrinking to 19 million from 2000-2009, and down to just 14 million thus far this decade.
There are myriad potential culprits for this national tuning out- the corrosive impact of the 1994 strike, the increasingly unreasonable length of games, and the bad taste left by the steroids era all come to mind. However, I would posit that the primary culprit for baseball's declining popularity is a bit simpler and a lot easier to remedy: People like to see greatness, and in baseball the greatest teams rarely win, and often don't even compete for, the World Series title.
Since 1996, the first full season when MLB expanded the playoff format to include a 'Wild Card' entrant from each League, teams with better regular season records have won less than 50 percent of playoff series (a record of 66 wins and 67 losses) and the team with the best record during the regular season has won the World Series just five times. Basketball offers an opportunity to compare and contrast; over the same time period in the NBA, the team with the better regular season record has won 78 percent of playoff series (a record of 209 wins and 58 losses) and the team with the best regular season record has won the championship nine times despite twice as many teams qualifying for the postseason.
Having 'great' teams competing for and winning titles is hugely important to a sports league for two primary reasons. First, the top teams are more likely to have the sport's marquee players. In the case of the NBA, one of the league's two signature superstars -- Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, respectively -- have competed in each of the last eight NBA Finals, helping to boost national viewership by 25 percent over that period. MLB's signature superstars -- retiring Yankees Shortstop Derek Jeter, slugging Detroit Tigers First Baseman Miguel Cabrera, and former St. Louis Cardinals First Baseman Albert Pujols -- have appeared in just four World Series during the same span.
Secondly, when the top teams compete for and win titles, the regular season takes on a greater order of importance. If playoff success is perfectly random, fans care less about how teams stack up during the regular season. Even the teams themselves appear to care less; baseball's Washington Nationals had the National League's best record this year, but over the final weeks of the season the team periodically rested players to prepare for the Playoffs despite the Dodgers running a close second. Compare this to the fierce battle in the final days the NBA's regular season between LeBron James' Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers for the Eastern Conference's best record.
In terms of why baseball's best teams fare worse in the postseason than their basketball counterparts, much of the disparity can be explained by the nature of the games themselves. In an NBA game, each team will typically score the equivalent of fifty baskets, so between the two teams there will be roughly one hundred 'scoring events.' Most baseball games have only a handful of scoring events. In general, the larger the sample size, the higher the probability is that the superior team will prevail in any single game. Over the course of the 162-game MLB regular season, no single game will be dispositive. During a best-of-seven playoff series, one game is often the difference between advancing and going home.
So, what can baseball do to spotlight its best teams? One easy way would be to give the team with the best regular season record in each League an automatic bye to the League's Championship Series.
In 1995 MLB expanded its playoff format, raising the number of teams qualifying for the postseason in each League from two to four. The move was made to reengage fans following the strike-shortened 1994 season; the logic was that having more teams in playoff contention would engender greater fan interest during the closing months of the season. And it worked. But while the move created more excitement for fans of fringe playoff hopefuls, it also diluted the postseason talent pool leading to the randomness cited above.
Offering the bye to each League's top team could solve this talent dilution dilemma while preserving the thrill of a larger playoff field. Under the plan, five teams would qualify for the postseason from each League. The bottom four seeds would square off against one another in two rounds of best-of-five playoff series and the victorious team would then advance to play the League's top team in the League Championship Series (LCS), with the LCS winner earning a World Series berth.
The altered format offers three crucial benefits. First, it would improve the caliber of team participating in the World Series. Even if the result of the League Championship Series were perfectly random, the odds are low that neither of the Leagues' respective top teams would advance. Second, because the reward for being the League's top team becomes so substantial, competition for the honor would be fierce, creating a pennant race-like atmosphere for teams in the running and their fans. Third, the best teams will get better. Currently, teams are incentivized to merely make the playoffs. The prospect of an automatic LCS berth would incentivize teams on the cusp to go all out in free agency and scour the trade market to secure the top spot. Dominant teams enthrall the casual fan; Jordan's late 1990s Chicago Bulls are still the gold standard.
Baseball has been a pioneer in its application of statistics, bringing science to a seemingly subjective art. It seems only fitting then that this acumen be rewarded by allowing the sport's finest teams to play under its brightest lights.