No One Watched The World Series This Year. The Playoff Format Is To Blame.
The Texas Rangers defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks in Game 5 of the 2023 World Series Wednesday night to clinch the first championship in the franchise’s history. Most people heard about it via social media or news alerts. One of the most prestigious sporting events in the United States was little more than a blip for most fans, who decided that the World Series was over before it started.
Though ratings have not yet been released for Game 5, the first four games of this year’s series were the least-watched World Series games outside of the pandemic in recorded history. Game 5 may enjoy a slight uptick in viewership because the Diamondbacks were facing elimination, but this year’s championship is almost certain to break the event’s record for lowest average ratings ever.
Media outlets have begun a frenzied search for the cause of this ratings crater, with most blaming small markets and the Houston Astros’ elimination in the ALCS. Both of these reasons can be refuted, as the Diamondbacks and Rangers enjoyed healthy ratings boosts with improved play during the regular season. The Astros aren’t a sure bet for postseason ratings either, as their World Series against the Phillies last year will soon be the third least-watched championship in MLB history.
But while those reasons are difficult to accept, there is an even more compelling cause for viewer disinterest that is even harder to stomach. In part, it is a claim that goes against the spirit of baseball and sports in general:
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The Diamondbacks did not deserve to be in the playoffs and MLB’s playoff format is intrinsically flawed.
Now, that’s not a very nice thing to say. Diamondbacks players, coaches and executives all worked extremely hard to earn a Wild Card berth. Once they reached the playoffs, they defeated the Brewers, Dodgers and Phillies, three talented teams with serious championship aspirations of their own. They made the most of an opportunity and proved that they belonged among the best in the National League. The only problem is that baseball is really, really weird.
In 2020, Action Sports analyzed the previous five seasons of major American sports and found that MLB had the highest upset rate, with betting underdogs winning 41.6% of the time. Baseball is so unpredictable that it is often taken for granted when these upsets occur.
To put things in perspective, the Rangers, newly crowned champions of the league, played the Oakland Athletics 13 times in 2023. Though the A’s finished the season with a 50-112 record and will go down as one of the worst teams in the history of baseball, they still managed to beat Texas four times.
Nothing can be taken away from the Diamondbacks as a team; they got hot at the right time and took advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses. If Clayton Kershaw is going to give up six runs in the first inning of an NLDS game, then it doesn’t matter if the Dodgers won 101 games. Arizona deserved to win. The point, however, is that any competent team in baseball can beat any other competent team on the right day, and this element of randomness has gotten out of hand now that the league has expanded the playoffs to include three Wild Card teams.
For all the praise one can give the Diamondbacks for their postseason performance, they finished the regular season with 84 wins and lost their division by 14 games. They briefly controlled the NL West early in the season, lost ground to the Dodgers and finished well enough to stay above .500. That sounds more like a disappointment than a success, and yet, the team still snuck into the playoffs, where the records stopped mattering.
Just behind them in the standings, the 82-80 Padres will be remembered as profound underperformers who missed the playoffs with the likes of Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis. If they had won three more games and made it into the postseason, there’s no telling how much damage they could have done. Their embarrassing play over the course of 162 games might not have made a difference.
Even after the Diamondbacks made the playoffs, the league made no real attempt to market the team to national audiences. Their Wild Card series against the Milwaukee Brewers was the only one to air on ESPN2, with the other three series airing on ABC and ESPN. Neither game in the two-game sweep drew more than two million viewers, according to Sports Media Watch, putting it last on average among the four matchups.
Even as the World Series approached, only the most diehard baseball fans outside Arizona would have been able to name more than five players on the Diamondbacks. Young star Corbin Carroll stands out and Zac Gallen hit a bird earlier in the season, but MLB never had a reason to market the team at any point during the season. Their success, while well-earned during the postseason, was completely incongruent with the six months of baseball that preceded it.
When people tune in to watch March Madness, they watch for the upsets. Most viewers are casual fans who weren’t paying attention to the actual college basketball season. The NCAA Tournament is chaotic and punishing and everything that fans of the sport are looking for. The storylines revolve around this randomness. That’s not why people watch the MLB Playoffs.
When viewers turn on the MLB Playoffs, they expect to witness the culmination of a grueling 162-game season in which the best teams compete for the championship. In two straight years since the playoff format was changed, however, MLB seasons have ended in middle-of-the-road N.L. underdogs getting slaughtered by superior A.L. rivals. People have clearly decided that that isn’t worth watching.
Now, there is a minor flaw in this argument. For some reason, the American League has somehow managed to consistently produce a highly touted team for the World Series in the new format. This might be somewhat dressed up, however. Last year, the 106-56 Astros were a historically good team while their ALCS counterpart, the 99-win Yankees, almost got dumped in the ALDS by the Cleveland Guardians. Houston swept New York in four games. This year, the Astros returned to the ALCS and the Rangers boasted newly acquired players from other organizations, but neither team came close to having the best regular season in the A.L. Both teams almost lost their playoff berths to the resurgent Mariners. Houston’s dynastic success may be providing consistency for viewers that would not be present otherwise.
If teams like the Braves and Dodgers win 104 and 101 games, respectively, but disappear in the playoffs, no amount of fan support should protect them from a postseason defeat. There doesn’t have to be an excessive reward for regular-season success, but there should be a more significant punishment for regular-season mediocrity.
It’s a hard truth, but national audiences don’t want a baseball tournament built for underdogs. They want to see the monsters, the teams they’ve watched and read about all season. In October, teams that win 100 games shouldn’t have to worry about the likes of the Cubs, a team that missed the postseason by one game with an 83-79 record.
As things are now, having 12 playoff spots theoretically gives every team in the league a 40% chance of making the playoffs. Toss a few teams with no chance and a few more that give up at the trade deadline, and it follows that practically any team above .500 has a chance at the postseason. From there, it’s just baseball, infinitely random and currently unsatisfying for many. If storylines from the regular season do not begin to bear some resemblance to storylines in the playoffs, then viewers will realize more and more that they have no reason to watch either.
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