In 2020, MLB implemented a new playoff format, which made sense in a season shortened by the pandemic.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, though, now wants to make that change permanent, and the league is reportedly making that a top priority for a new collective bargaining agreement (the current CBA runs through this season.) In any case, should the league indeed manage to convince the MLBPA, MLB will have a 14-team postseason with three best-of-three opening round series per league. And according to the New York Post’s Andrew Marchand and Joel Sherman, the new playoff round will have an exclusive television home: ESPN.
Via the Post:
ESPN and Major League Baseball are closing in on a TV deal that would provide the network exclusive rights to the first round of the playoffs, The Post has learned.
Now all that is needed is a first round of the playoffs.
That needs to be negotiated between MLB and the Players Association, which is to say that, while an ESPN-MLB deal is close, they are still far from knowing when — and even if — there will be playoffs expanded from 10 to likely 14 teams to include a best-of-three first round.
In addition to the new playoff games, ESPN would be reducing their national game total, which is something that’s been likely for a while now. Sunday Night Baseball (and Alex Rodriguez) would remain, but that would be about it for most of the year.
While weekday regular season baseball will almost be eliminated on the network, “Sunday Night Baseball” will continue with ESPN in talks to keep Alex Rodriguez as the main analyst on the broadcasts, according to sources. His partner, Matt Vasgersian, is probable to return, but a definitive decision has not been made yet.
In the new contract, ESPN will pay a lower average value than its previous eight-year contract that was reported to be for $5.6 billion. Fewer games means less money. The exact dollars and length are not yet publicly known. It is likely to be through 2028 when the Fox and TBS baseball deals end.
While the Post notes that MLB is shopping ESPN’s vacated primetime deals to other networks, this does feel like a loss for a sport that has already become highly regionalized in terms of fandom. For ESPN it’s probably an obvious call, though; while a lot of people have very reasonable questions about the competitive merits of an expanded postseason (especially on top of a continued 162-game regular season), adding more high-stakes games in the fall is never a bad thing. (There’s a chance some games air on ABC, as well, which we saw in 2020.)
And considering ESPN doesn’t have the World Series, they don’t likely care if, say, the Marlins eliminate the Cubs in a short series, taking a big-market draw out for the remainder of the postseason.
This feels inevitable, especially if the league is already building rights deals around it. It does, however, tip ownership’s hand a bit ahead of CBA negotiations. Hopefully the union capitalizes on that bit of leverage, at least.