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Thursday, September 27, 2007
The Structure of Sports Government

Closely related to all things "legal relating to the sports world" is the political and governmental structures of the sports world. How do sports and leagues organize and structure themselves and what are the consequences of those structural decisions--on the field, in the clubhouse, and in the balance sheets? Obviously, the governmental and social structure affects the resulting political society; every choice reflects certain values and incentivizes certain behavior while de-emphasizing other values and behavior. That is true in sports.

One example of this is Major League Baseball's choice to have a play-off wild card team. I disagreed with this decision when it happened in 1995 and I continue to disagree with it (putting me in yet another minority, although this time a minority of two--Bob Costas and me). MLB's choice reflects structural values and emphasizes some concerns and goals over others. But I continue to argue that it is focusing on the wrong goals. has published an essay by Robert Weintraub called The Last Real Race, a chronicle of the 1993 National League West race between the Atlanta Braves and the San Francisco Giants. In the last year of the two-division/no-wild-card format, the Braves overcame a 9-game defecit on July 20, won 104 games, and won the division by one game on the final day. Put differently, the Giants (in Barry Bonds' MVP-winning first year in San Francisco) won 103 games--and stayed home.

The title of the article is appropriate because, with MLB's structural choice to add a wild-card, a race such as the 1993 NL West will not occur again. And that is a value-lade decision. As Weintraub correctly puts it:

The drama of late-season baseball has been transferred from occasional but memorable all-or-nothing contests between great teams, to annual lower-stakes games between the good-to-mediocre. Could be an apt metaphor for the culture at large.

Today, neither the Giants nor the Braves would have any strong, do-or-die incentive to catch the other and win the division. Both were so far ahead of the Montreal Expos (yes, you read that right), the second-place team in the NL East, that the loser of the division still was guaranteed a playoff spot. So the wise strategy entering the final weekend would be to relax, keep people healthy, and set up the starting rotation for the Division Series. And we see that with the Yankees this year--they trail the Red Sox by 3 in the AL East with four to play, but already have clinced the AL Wild Card. There is no real play-off pressure this weekend for two of the teams with the best records in baseball.

On the other hand, the play-off race is among five NL teams vying for two division titles and one wild card. But all five teams will finish with anywhere from 86 to 92 wins. And there is a do-or-die race for the NL Central title between two teams (including my Cubs) that will win, at most, 87 games (and that assumes the Cubs win their final four games, an unlikely proposition since, well, they are the Cubs).

A wild-card system values having lot of teams in the play-off hunt and more times with post-season hopes later in the season, with a lot of win-or-else games. But it achieves that at the expense of having the best teams playing those win-or-else games. This is sound as a business decision--more fans in more cities will come out or watch in that final weekend, knowing their teams still are alive. But as a baseball matter, I would prefer to watch the Red Sox be forced to win 98 games in order to make the post-season by a desperate Yankees team trying to make-up three games in the standings.

The wild card also de-values division races. Looking at Thursday morning's standings: The Padres (87 wins) trail the Diamonbacks (88 wins) in the NL West, but lead the Phillies (86 wins) for the Wild Card. So the Padres spend the final four games not really caring what the Diamondbacks do, so long as the Pads stay ahead of the Phillies.

The argument that there still is an incentive to win the division is that the wild-card gets a less-favorable NLDS match-up and gets fewer home games in NLDS and NLCS. The problem is that neither of those is a really meaningful incentive, since baseball is unique among all sports in the unpredictability of short series (as opposed to 162-game marathon seasons). The 1993 Braves that came all that way to win the division lost in the LCS to the Phillies. And in the twelve years since the Wild Card was established, a wild card team has made the World Series six of those years, including at least one in each of the last four years. Being the Wild Card simply is not a meaningful hurdle to overcome. Again, the goal simply is to make the play-offs. The "pennant race"--the race to win the division--truly is secondary for the best teams and an issue for the next tier of teams.

It is all about values--quality of baseball and quality of the teams in the competition or simply more money from more teams being involved. MLB made its choice. I believe it made the wrong one.


Two concepts are presented here: (a) philosophical questions of sport governance, and
(b) sports league tournament formats.

The title of this post highlights a crucial and fascinating theme, but most of ths post (while interesting in itself) is simply a discussion of scheduling.

If so, then perhaps we could have a few links to some of the excellent work that has been done by sports statisticians and mathematicians on the effects of tournament format please.

Anonymous Rob -- 9/30/2007 6:14 PM  

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