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MLB’s single-game wild-card playoff round, which began last year as something of an organizational fire drill, has settled this season into a much more established part of baseball’s biggest month.
The single-game knockout contests last season were shoehorned into the schedule after a late deal between the league and the MLB Players Association to expand the playoffs. Conversely, this year’s wild-card games have been planned from the outset. And unlike last year’s games, which were played back-to-back on a Friday night, the NL and AL wild-card games each have their own midweek prime-time broadcast slots. TBS is again carrying the games, with the NL game scheduled for Tuesday and the AL game set for the following night.
The competitive landscape for the wild-card games this year is also far less chaotic. In the last week of the 2012 season, nine teams were still within six games of a wild-card slot and alive in the postseason chase, leaving the involved teams and Turner Sports unsure until very late where to send staffers and what time games would start.
At press time last week, the NL game was all but set to include Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and just three AL teams were alive for two wild-card spots.
“This is much more business as usual now,” said Matt Silverman, Tampa Bay Rays president. The Rays at press time late last week were in line to play host to the AL wild-card game. “It also helps that we’ve had multiple playoff games in our market the last several years. So we know what to do, and the league is familiar with our playoff preparations.”
Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president of business, said this year presents the opportunity to see the full benefits of what was originally contemplated in enlarging the postseason and creating the knockout games.
“Fans are going to be treated to two win-or-go-home games in prime time, and potentially a third depending on whether we get a tiebreaker scenario,” Brosnan said. “That’s a very compelling way to start the postseason.”
Turner said it has sold nearly 80 percent of its available ad inventory for the MLB postseason, slightly ahead of last year at a comparable point, and encouraging enough to suggest a likely full sellout as in 2012.
“Business is strong,” said Jon Diament, Turner’s executive vice president of ad sales and marketing.
Budweiser is again the presenting sponsor of the wild-card games. New MLB sponsor T-Mobile has bought the presenting rights to the league division series round, and Capital One has those rights for the National League Championship Series.
Turner is primarily selling ad inventory across its postseason rights this year: the wild-card games, all LDS, and the NLCS. But the network is holding back some avails from the NLCS. As teams move on, their seasonlong sponsors will be looking to buy spots, Diament said.
MLB Network is doing four hours of live pregame coverage on each day of wild-card games. That’s nearly triple the pregame coverage it did before the one day of wild-card games last year. The ALCS and World Series will air on Fox.