How the expanded MLB postseason has increased fan engagement & helped “fringe” postseason hopes
By: Cal Forde
September 20, 2023
Photo Credit: MLB.com
As the 2023 MLB regular season comes to a close, teams, fans, and front offices set their eyes on October baseball and the 2023 Postseason. Thanks to a new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement signed prior to the 2022 season, 12 clubs – up from 10 in previous years – six from the American League and six from the National League, are battling for playoff contention. The expanded postseason, as well as a pitch timer, bigger bases, defensive shift restrictions, and pickoff limitations are all designed to increase fan interest and audience retention.
The goal of the expanded playoff format was to keep fan bases and markets further engaged by increasing the odds of fringe postseason teams taking a shot at becoming World Series Champions. So far, this campaign has been an enormous success. According to the Sports Business Journal, by the annual MLB All-Star break in mid-July (often viewed as the halfway point of the season), MLB in-person fan attendance had risen by 8.3% over the same number of games in 2022. Additionally, MLB social media saw a 25% increase in engagements as well as a 4% increase in ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, and a 31% increase in Fox and FS1 viewership.
The beauty of the expanded postseason is that it can favor not the “best” team throughout the regular season, but the hottest team. For instance, Matt Synder of CBS recently reported that this season, “the Braves are the most likely team to win it all, if you had the choice between the Braves and the rest of the field, you should take the field.” More clubs are battling and dedicating a significant amount of resources towards a postseason berth – spending and acquiring players at the Trade Deadline, snatching players from waivers, and putting forth financial resources in the forms of trades, free agent signings, and waiver claims – with the hope of increasing chances to sneak into the postseason and make a deep run.
Take the 2022 Philadelphia Phillies; A surging fringe team at the end of the regular season who finished third in the NL East and just one game in front of the Milwaukee Brewers for the final Wild Card spot. The Phillies made it all the way to Game 6 of the World Series before being losing to the Houston Astros by a score of 4-1. Under the previous playoff format, the Phillies would have been two wins short of a postseason berth.
Asked about how the MLB expanded postseason has been received, MLB Chief Revenue Officer, Noah Garden, declared it “an overwhelming success.” Fan engagement and attendance data seem to support Garden’s point. The last weekend of the 2022 regular season drew 1,644,658 fans, the highest fan-attendance number recorded since August 2015. The end of the 2023 season is shaping up to be just as–if not more–thrilling than 2022. These increases are significant because they amount to roughly one-third of each club's revenue in any given season.
But what does this mean for contending teams in 2023? The Cincinnati Reds – a young, exciting, star-studded lineup – is an outstanding example of the benefits the expanded playoff lineup has on fan engagement and, subsequently, MLB finances. At the time of publication, FanGraphs estimates the Reds’ playoff odds at 30.4%; but, with a record of 78-73 and just half a game out from the third and final Wild Card spot, the Reds are solidly in contention compared to in 2022, where they finished 31 games back in the NL Central and 25 games back from the third Wild Card spot.
Fans are flocking to historic Great American Ballpark to see their Reds fight for a Wild Card spot, and attendance has risen from an average of 17,447 fans per game in 2022 to 25,040 so far in 2023. This increase in fans is crucial, especially given the rising prices for beer, food, and concessions at ballparks across the country. In 2021, the average cost to take a family of four to a ballgame was $253 which comes out to $63.25 per person per game. Based on this data, the Reds earn around $1,583,780 million in revenue per game in 2023 from a person attending the game that eats, drinks, and buys other concessions compared to $1,103,522.75 million per game in 2022. Over the course of the 82 home games for the Reds in 2023, this amounts to $129,869,960 million in revenue from tickets, food, drinks, and concessions compared to $91,592,388.25 million in 2022.
The Reds are not the only organization locked in a heated race. Teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, San Francisco Giants, Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs, Seattle Mariners, and Texas Rangers, just to name a few, all find themselves in similar positions. An interesting trend to follow in the next few years as the expanded postseason is still relatively new is the number of teams just mentioned (the majority of which are small market teams) making postseason runs.
Due to the increase of teams making the postseason, small market teams have more incentive to put forth resources to stay competitive and postseason eligible. This, in turn, creates a symbiotic relationship between small market teams competing and striving for the postseason. Given that MLB has no salary caps, teams such as the Reds will be able to attract more fans leading to more revenue and cash to spend on free agents and signing. Close postseason races lead to more exciting games, which then leads to butts in seats, greater engagement, and additional financial benefits through ticket sales, media rights, partnerships, and merchandising for individual clubs and Major League Baseball alike.