Early To Rise, Early To Bed: Starting Seasons Sooner To Grab A Bigger Audience
To everything there is a season. And for those wondering why Major League Baseball opened its season in the final week of March this year (seasons around WW II used to open in mid-April), it’s because leagues have realized that there’s no point playing important games when the audience is looking elsewhere.
That was a large part of the reason the PGA Tour revamped its schedule this year. So it can play its championship event— the FedEx Cup in late August— without competition from the NFL and college football in September, it shunted the PGA Championship from its long-time perch in August to mid-May. The TPC was then bumped from May to March.
Several established events have disappeared or been moved to accommodate the earlier finish. (The Canadian Open was pushed into early June to make the final push for the FedEx Cup happen in late July/ early August.) The only late-season events fighting football will be the Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup.
Tennis has fewer problems with only the second week of the U.S. Open nudging into football. Then again, tennis as a big ratings thing left the harbour long ago when America stoped producing male champions.
In the case of MLB, which is talking of expanding its playoffs, making room in the prime TV ratings period of early fall for lucrative postseason games—without pushing them into freezing conditions in November— requires getting an earlier start on the season (Baseball also must adhere to its collective bargaining agreement with the players that dictates more days off for teams.)
All that’s lost is the endless preseason. Hands up everyone who thinks spring training needs to last six weeks?
The CFL is another league the many feel needs to start and end earlier. It’s hard to sell tickets in Canada for late October/ early November games played in a blizzard or freezing cold. So there has been talk of starting in early May with a Thanksgiving Day Grey Cup game. Besides, the CFL’s sugar daddy, TSN needs a property that gets going right after its NHL package winds up in April and wraps up before the NHL commences again in October.
The gorilla in all this is ,of course, NFL football. Despite all its controversies and injury concerns it remains a ratings juggernaut from September till early February. Beware the league the tries to mess with The Shield, as the league fancies itself.
There is also the demand that regular season games mean more. Outside the sweats, who wants 82 NHL or NBA games? The general public is blasé about the churn of inventory that stretches from October to April. The stain of teams tanking for draft picks (and to save money on big salaries) has only added to diminishing the brand. With digital services people just have more options than they did in the past.
(Digital is also why the late-night TV highlight package shows are now redundant. But we digress.)
NHL execs have long wrestled with the dilemma of how to streamline the playoffs into a March Madness style of promotion. Between top seeds being KO’d too early in the playoffs and a final stretching into late June (when people want to be outside) their momentum often stalls by the time of the third round of playoffs.
But with so much money coming from playoffs, the NHL is loath to shorten them. In fact, it wants to expand the postseason. As we’ve suggested before in our book Cap In Hand there are some alternatives to make the regular season more exciting while weighing against tanking. Here’s what we said in April of 2017.
“Continue (in the case of both NHL and NBA) the 82-game schedules. After 72 games, declare the 16 teams that will be in the playoffs. Have them play out the rest of the season to determine the final playoff positions. Proceed with the postseason as usual.
The lower 14 (about to be 15 NHL) teams that don’t make the playoffs also play out the remaining 10 games. But instead of starting inferior goalies and putting players on injured reserve to tank the season, turn the equation upside down. Have those teams play the final 10 games to determine the draft order-- by winning.
The best team in the final 10 games wins the top draft pick and so on, till the team with the worst record in this 10 games gets the fifteenth draft pick. After that, the playoff teams’ draft positions are decided in the same manner as now.
In other words, reward success and punish poor management by making the final part of the season actually mean something. Imagine the tension coming down the stretch as teams who ordinarily would have little to excite their fans get to cheer winning— not losing— to get McDavid or Matthews.
The message would be clear, winning matters. What a refreshing concept that would be. Promote excellence. Punish incompetence.
And if that doesn’t work-- try relegation!”
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them is now available.