MLB, Rob Manfred Must Learn Lessons From Downfall of NASCAR

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 30: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred visits "Mornings With Maria" hosted by Maria Bartiromo at Fox Business Network Studios on September 30, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 30: (EXCLUSIVE COVERAGE) MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred visits "Mornings With Maria" hosted by Maria Bartiromo at Fox Business Network Studios on September 30, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Steven Ferdman/Getty Images) /

If MLB goes forward with Rob Manfred’s controversial postseason proposal, they may head down a bumpy road traveled by another sports organization, NASCAR

This season, MLB will adopt a three-batter minimum for pitchers, a rule change that would radically alter managers’ bullpen strategy while potentially shortening the length of games. This is only the latest in a series of rule changes designed to improve the “pace of play”, including the implementation of the pitch clock and a set limit on mound visits.

But the most talked-about potential change to baseball is a proposed new playoff system that would increase MLB’s postseason bracket to 14 teams while introducing a playoff “draw” similar to the NCAA Tournament selection show where top teams would choose their playoff opponents on live TV.

The proposal has been near-universally rejected by both fans and people within baseball, including Cincinnati Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer. Despite this, according to New York Post reporter Joel Sherman, who first reported the story, the TV networks seem to be on board – which would be good for Manfred, considering that the current deals with ESPN and Turner expire in 2021.

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This is nothing new. Your parents may still be bitter about “recent” introductions to the game, such as interleague play, the expanded playoff system, or before that, the designated hitter.

But somehow, this feels different. Whereas all of those were meant to propel baseball into a modern age and attract new fans, the changes to the game that have been proposed under Manfred seem like the machinations of a group of men who hate the sport that they represent, hate the audience that they cater to, and want people to know that.

For MLB’s TV partners, the advantage is obvious: More teams, more playoff games, and more opportunities for dramatic moments – not to mention the gimmicky ratings-grab playoff draw. But was this not the motive behind the addition of the Wild Card games in 2012? Or the Division Series in 1995? Where does baseball draw the line?  Otherwise, in ten years, we could be discussing a move to a 16-team playoff format, as exists in the NBA and NHL today.

Yes, a wider playoff format does increase the hope for those fanbases who haven’t made it to the dance in years and decreases the risk of tanking for teams that are just good enough to not be among the worst in baseball. However, MLB runs the risk of cheapening the grandeur of October – once a place where only the best of the best came to play. They ran the risk of doing so as early as 1995 with the eight-team playoff format.

One does not have to look far to find the possible long-term effect that Rob Manfred’s meddling could have on the sport.

In the early 2000s, NASCAR was America’s fastest-growing sport, with dramatic racing week after week, millions of dollars of TV revenue and sponsorship money, and larger-than-life personalities behind the wheel. In the middle of the decade, chairman Brian France spearheaded questionable decisions that would trigger the downfall of America’s most popular motorsport.

The downfall arguably started in 2004, with the institution of the playoff format known as the Chase for the Cup, an attempt to cram a ten-race playoff system into a 36-race regular season with the top ten drivers qualifying for a shot at the title. Despite complaints from fans that the system essentially invalidated the 26 races that preceded it, NASCAR pushed forward with the format, tweaking it throughout the years and eventually applying it to lower-division series in 2016.

This was merely the bellwether for other gimmicky additions to the sport, such as the introduction of segmented races in 2018, which were intended to recruit an audience that would never arrive. Since then, the audience that NASCAR once held fled in droves, as television viewership has dropped as high as 38% since 2015, and races feature large chasms of empty seats.

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NASCAR has yet to recover from this loss in stature, and by no means is America’s pastime immune to the same. The game has withstood scandal after scandal, rough patch after rough patch, with fans tuning in year after year. It cannot survive when the people in the sport’s highest echelon openly chase those fans away in pursuit of an audience that does not exist.