We live in the disruption age. Disruptive innovation has changed the way we watch television and movies, listen to music, shop, date, order food, consume news, you name it. But the NBA and Major League Baseball are here to remind us that not all changes represent progress or improvement.
Maybe I’ve just become a crusty sports curmudgeon in my years on the planet (don’t let that baby-faced avatar fool you). But there’s too much tinkering going on in sports as everyone wants to suck in fans and stand out in an oversaturated entertainment market. There is a fine line between ingenuity and gimmickry, between novelty and completely unnecessary.
The NBA and MLB reformatting marquee parts of their season veers across the line — the NBA tweaking its All-Star Game format and MLB proposing a radical postseason makeover. It’s change you can’t believe in.
In case you missed it, this Sunday’s NBA All-Star Game in Chicago is going to employ an unconventional new format. Instead of a normal four-quarter game full of high-flying dunks, jaw-dropping passes, and absentee defense until the final minutes between Team Giannis and Team LeBron, the league is going with a modified game that will crown a winner for each of the first three quarters, resetting the score to 0-0 after each quarter.
At the start of the fourth quarter, the game clock will be turned off, the cumulative scores for the teams over the first three quarters tabulated, and a target score will be set to determine a winner. Think of a pickup game where the first one to 10 wins.
The first team to reach the target score wins. This year, in a fitting tribute to the late Kobe Bryant, the target score will be 24 points more than the cumulative three-quarter total of the team that’s ahead.
Still with me? Or have your eyes glazed over? Who knew you needed to be Pythagoras to figure out who’s winning the NBA All-Star Game. The only redeeming aspects of this complicated format are paying homage to Bryant and the fact that the winning side in each of the first three quarters will receive a $100,000 donation to a community organization of their choice. The team that achieves the target score in the fourth quarter will get a $200,000 donation.
The maddening part is that the All-Star Game doesn’t need to be altered, especially in such a radical fashion. It already commands a place as the most enjoyable of the traditional Big Four pro sports contests.
The game hits the narrow sweet spot of entertaining exhibition and acceptable competition. It’s a reasonable enough facsimile of an NBA game that it doesn’t distort or pervert the product beyond recognition or enjoyment like the Pro Bowl or the NHL All-Star Game.
But it’s not the exercise in soulless ennui that the MLB All-Star Game devolved into when ex-commissioner Bud Selig attached home-field advantage in the World Series to the game. Players didn’t know how to act in Uncle Bud’s misguided showcase. They weren’t going to go full-tilt but they also couldn’t unpack their personalities and let loose for fear of being shamed because the game spuriously mattered.
MLB wisely nixed this ill-fated concept in 2017.
Nixing an ill-fated competitive concept is exactly what MLB needs to do with the proposed new playoff format that came to light Monday. It’s one that would amount to plastic surgery that alters the appearance of MLB beyond recognition.
OK, take a deep breath, and get your pencils or iPhone notes apps ready. Grab a Snickers. This is going to take a while. The leaked proposal would expand baseball’s playoffs, the most exclusive among the Big Four North American sports, from 10 teams to 14 with the wild-card pool in each league growing from two teams to four. So you would have the three American League division winners, the three National League division winners, plus four wild-card entries per league.
The expansion, slated for 2022, according to reports, would provide an opening-round bye for the AL and NL division winners owning the best records. Then the division winners with the second-best record would get to — get this — choose their opponent from the bottom three wild-card clubs for a best-of-three series to be held entirely at the division winner’s home park. Sound the fake drama alarm!
The third division winner would then choose its opponent from the remaining two wild-card teams. The wild-card team with the best record would then take on the remaining team.
The best part is a “Bachelor”-style selection ceremony on the final Sunday of the regular season to reveal the playoff selections. It would be baseball’s version of a rose ceremony. Tampa Bay Rays, will you accept this rosin bag and this playoff matchup?
This is absurd.
Iconoclastic Reds pitcher Trevor Bauer wasted no time telling MLB commissioner Rob Manfred as much on social media.
No idea who made this new playoff format proposal, but Rob is responsible for releasing it, so I’ll direct this to you, Rob Manfred. Your proposal is absurd for too many reasons to type on twitter and proves you have absolutely no clue about baseball. You’re a joke.— Trevor Bauer (@BauerOutage) February 11, 2020
At least the NBA is tinkering with an exhibition game. MLB wants an extreme makeover of its most meaningful time of year.
Among the rationales provided for this format is that it could prevent teams from trading off players and tanking to get higher draft picks and prospects, as rebuilding has become all the rage. The reformatted postseason could also inspire teams to spend more money in free agency. Its introduction would coincide with a new collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires after the 2021 season.
Increased spending is music to the ears of the MLB Players Association, which has decried the payroll retrenchment across baseball under the current CBA with the luxury tax looming as baseball’s boogeyman. (Does the name Mookie Betts ring a bell?)
But this postseason configuration would desecrate and extinguish the sanctity of baseball’s 162-game season. It was bad enough when MLB added a superfluous second wild card per league in 2012, ushering in a contrived one-game playoff that rendered the regular season less relevant.
This would be trashing the relevance of the regular season like a Hollywood hotel room. One of the charms of baseball is that playoff access is a precious commodity. No more under this plan.
The postseason reboot basically turns baseball into the NBA or NHL, where half the league makes the playoffs. In MLB, 14 of 30 teams would punch tickets to the postseason. In the NBA, 16 of 30 teams qualify. In the NHL, it’s 16 of 31 with Seattle coming online as the 32nd franchise for the 2021-22 season.
Change is inevitable and unavoidable. It’s part of the natural evolution of life. Every tradition began as a newfangled idea.
These changes might generate more interest and dollars, but they don’t make any sense.