Has baseball shot itself in the foot by going to a best-of-seven playoff format and allowing all World Series games to be played at night? In the immortal words of Joaquin Andujar, "Youneverknow."
Nineteen eighty-six may well turn out to be the year when the expanded playoffs, mandated in baseball's $1.1 billion contract with NBC and ABC, first seriously threatened to upstage the World Series. And how about all those 8:30 Series starts, which the contract expressly allows the networks? What has baseball done except to disenfranchise a whole generation of kids, the very ticket buyers of tomorrow?
The Playoffs-Upstaging-the-Series Theory is, of course, impossible to prove. But it is high time for debate.
I, for one, don't think it's any coincidence that until Game 5 the Series was Dead City. The playoffs were so dramatic and intense that, by the time the Series started, the players seemed spent and unfocused. Although it improved as the Series progressed, the TV commentary was initially dull, partly because Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola turned up the talk meter at the precise time that they had nothing new to tell us. Scully is tremendous with words but what could he say as the Series began? And what fan wasn't satiated with baseball as he approached the tube for the Series opener?
Of course, even the worst burnout cases found their fires reignited by the maniac melodrama of Game 6 and the ultimate last-stand battle of Game 7. In fact, NBC's ratings for the Series showed no signs of atrophy. They averaged a nice plump 26.2 through Game 5, or 9% higher than ABC's numbers in 1985. But this year the Series was up against relatively weak prime-time programming on ABC and CBS, giving it an artificial boost. You would expect strong numbers anyway, with the nation's Nos. 1 and 6 markets directly involved as compared with No. 17 St. Louis and No. 28 Kansas City last year.
Will baseball rue the day it expanded the playoffs? It's possible. When the playoffs went from best of five to best of seven last year, baseball helped create a buyer's market. On the playoffs this year, ABC averaged $76,000 for a 30-second ad, while NBC got $250,000 per 30 seconds on the Series. In part because of this imbalance, NBC had a hard time selling out the Series. Baseball's TV contract is in its third year, with three years left. The additional revenue from the expansion of the playoffs is $9 million a year, or a relatively paltry $346,000 per team. Has it been worth it to take some of the glamour away from the Series?
As for the night games, is there a kid below the age of 13 east of the Mississippi who watched any of the World Series games beyond the second inning? The average time of the final pitch in the Series was 11:50 p.m. ET. That's abominable. Starting the games so late means, at least in the East, that nobody talks about them on the bus or in the car pool. It's the World Privacy Series. We're all watching in our bedrooms, head on the pillow with one eye open.
"When I grew up and the Series was played on weekdays," says NBC executive producer Mike Weisman, "I remember sneaking a radio to my desk in geography class and kids passing around notes: 'Who's winning.... What's the score?' Now kids are in bed by the second inning. They wake up the next morning and they say, 'Who won?' But for NBC to recoup the money we pay baseball, they have to play at night. It's a real Catch 22."
Baseball says that the all-night Series is the networks' doing, but in truth both sides are culpable. What did baseball think when it gave the networks the option of showing all the games in prime time? That they would pay $1.1 billion but pass up prime-time ad revenues so that nine-year-olds could get beneath the covers on time?
It's going to be interesting when baseball signs its next contract with the networks. If NBC had its druthers, one exec said last week, it would pay less, air a best-of-five playoffs, and schedule weekend Series games in the late afternoon. Funny, but wasn't that the whole idea before baseball and television got greedy?