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Volume 21 No. 1
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Wild card brings wild times for MLB, partners

MLB is venturing into what it calls “uncharted territory” for its new wild card playoff round, as the single-game knockout contests set for Friday creates a dizzying array of logistical challenges.

League and team officials, broadcaster Turner Sports and other business partners last week were all on high alert, trying to prepare for many scenarios for the reformatted beginning to baseball’s postseason. Nine clubs were within six games of a wild card slot at press time last week and the host cities for the two games remained unsettled, magnifying the complexity of business planning.

Baseball regular Budweiser is presenting sponsor of the wild card games.
“All the different scenarios still out there have definitely ramped up what we need to do from a planning standpoint, certainly compared to the prior playoff format,” said Derek Schiller, Atlanta Braves executive vice president of sales and marketing. The Braves, standing last week as the likely host of the National League wild-card game, began selling tickets nearly three weeks ago. But Schiller said the sales process has required the team to educate fans on the new format, and a potential wild-card game at Turner Field as of last week had not yet sold out.

“We’ve had to build out a business plan for literally about six different scenarios. And all those different outcomes have a different effect with regard to start times, broadcast schedules, your concessionaire, ticketing and so forth,” Schiller said. “There’s no doubt this change has … generated a lot of excitement. But because it’s the first year, we’re all having to learn through the new concept together.”

MLB and the MLB Players Association created the single-game wild-card round in last year’s collective-bargaining agreement, expanding the postseason to include a fifth team each in the American and National leagues. After originally planning to begin the new format with the 2013 season, the league and union agreed in March to shoehorn the additional postseason round into an already established 2012 schedule.

Turner Sports began its postseason marketing about two weeks earlier than normal because of the new format. Because it doesn’t yet know where the wild-card games will be played, the network plans to place several TV production trucks around the country near potential host markets.

“We have to be in a lot of different locations,” said Christina Miller, Turner Sports senior vice president of strategy, marketing and programming. “It will take more resources to account for these games. We have to cover our bases.”

MLB Network will air a two-hour wild-card preview show on Thursday, and plans to have talent on site in both wild-card host markets. But like everybody else, the league’s TV outlet remains in wait-and-see mode.

“The big thing for us is that our talent will be talking about something very new,” said MLB Network Chief Executive Tony Petitti. “Even the former players among our talent have never been in something like this.”

The same frantic story can also be told with regard to licensing. With a single knockout game that will end the season for two clubs, hot market merchandising has been compromised, even by normal baseball playoff standards. Longtime on-field cap rights holder New Era for the first time will affix playoff patches to the sides of caps for the entire postseason. The additional decoration had been reserved for the World Series.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Howard Smith, MLB senior vice president of licensing. “If I have my business cap on, we’d love to have four or five days before to prime any market. Putting my fan hat on, we have 15 teams with a chance at the postseason with a week left, so I’d love to see a last night similar to last year, where nothing’s decided until the last out of the last game.”

Even with the compressed time frame, MLB and Turner have signed several sponsorships specifically around the single wild-card games. Budweiser is the presenting sponsor of the two contests, an element contained in the brewer’s recent sponsorship extension with the league. Turner signed Captain Morgan, Bank of America and Dodge to various elements of its wild-card game broadcasts, in addition to Budweiser’s activation on TV.