*Possibility not guaranteed
The Cleveland Cavaliers just became the first team in NBA history to come back from being down 3-1 to win in an NBA Finals, defeating the Golden State Warriors, who had just put together the best regular season in NBA history. This impressive feat was somewhat overshadowed by dubious officiating decisions, but it is NBA tradition to
fix slightly alter the course of a game to try to maximize series length and revenue. When the dust had settled, Cleveland had finally broken the championship drought that had lasted since the Lake Erie Monsters (that’s a hockey team) won the Calder Cup on June 11, 2016.
Professional sports championship drought ending or not, the NBA Finals was an excellent conclusion to the season. How do I know? I’m not much of a basketball fan, and I watched Game 7. So they were able to draw in the casual fan, and even the general sports fan. That’s the goal of any sports league in the 21st century: getting eyeballs on the television screen.
The next major professional team sport that will be conducting a postseason will be Major League Baseball, this October. There are two ways I look at this. First, what matchups would I want to see? Second, what matchups would get the casual fans and the general sports fans more interested in watching a baseball game?
First, Major League Baseball is entirely wrong on what it takes to get viewers to turn on their televisions. So is ESPN, for that matter, although one would think they would do better. You don’t need New York in the series to get big ratings. You don’t need Boston, or Chicago, or Los Angeles. Game 7 of the NBA Finals was the highest rated in NBA history, for a game between Cleveland (17th largest TV market) and Oakland (6th largest, because it is lumped with San Francisco for these purposes.) Almost 3 million more viewers watched Lebron James bring a championship to Cleveland than watched Game 7 in 2010, which featured the Boston Celtics (7th largest TV market) against the Los Angeles Lakers (2nd largest.) One might think this is only true for basketball, given the star power of individuals (and the star power of James and Steph Curry certainly had a lot to do with the ratings) but this is simply not the case. The 1986 World Series (featuring the Red Sox and the Mets) averaged only slightly more than the 1991 edition between the Twins and the Braves, and was not substantially ahead of the 1987 or 1985 series.
Some would argue that viewing demographics have changed, and that MLB didn’t need a big market team in the 80s and early 90s (before the strike hurt viewership) but that is not the case, either. The 1995 series (Braves-Indians) drew more viewers than the following year (Yankees-Braves). When two New York teams faced off in 2000, it brought the lowest average viewership of a World Series in years, and the 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004 series all drew better on average than 2000. From 2005-present viewership has remained low, never averaging more than 20 million for a series.
Why has viewership been down? There are several reasons, but the chief of them is the lack of a Game 7. In 1997, with the expansion Florida Marlins facing the Indians, almost 38 million watched Game 7. That was 14 million more viewers than watched any other game of the series. In 2001, over 39 million watched Game 7, with no other game hitting 24 million viewers. But after just under 31 million watched Game 7 in 2002, there wasn’t another Game 7 for nine years. In the two since, Game 7 viewership has shown a decrease, but not nearly to the extent of average viewership. The 2011 Game 7 drew 25.5 million viewers and the 2014 Game 7 drew 23.5 million viewers. Game 7s draw people that aren’t normally fans of the sport, and a good Game 7 has the potential to keep them coming back. But you need more than just seven games. You also need compelling storylines (King James bringing one to Cleveland), star power (Curry, James, Kyrie Irving, Draymond Green), and drama (suspensions, ejections, and even fights do help to build viewership.) If you can have an officiating controversy, that also can help.
So, what should baseball want? Here is a short list:
- Seven games
- Good games. You don’t want people turning off the TV after three innings
- Star power
Marketing has a lot to do with this. Focus on the personalities. The Royals, for example, are entertaining to watch for baseball fans. But where is the personality that is larger-than-life, a bit controversial, and is marketed? As Diamondbacks fans, we love watching Paul Goldschmidt. But is he the type of person that will appeal to viewers and draw them in? Baseball needs more outspoken players that aren’t afraid to talk about how much they hate the other team. There’s a reason people watch professional wrestling, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the fair and completely not rigged matches.
(Note: I cannot believe I actually typed the above paragraph. Fact is, I love focusing on a team and how they play rather than the individual. I don’t like big stars. I hate it when a player focuses on themselves and draws attention to themselves. Truth be told, though, if a player were to act like that, I’d be watching, even if just to root against them, like most Diamondbacks fans rooted for Yasiel Puig to fail at the Home Run Derby. What I like might not be what is best for the long-term viability of the sport.)
I think I’ve adequately covered what baseball needs out of the World Series. Now to put on my fan hat and look at what I want.
I want good games. To me, that’s more important than the number of games. I’d rather watch a series with four good games (like 2005) than one with seven not-so-good games (like 1987). I’d like the Diamondbacks to be in it, but the likelihood of that isn’t particularly high. I’d also rather not see the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, or Giants in the series. I’d like the teams to have good storylines and to be fundamentally sound.
So here is my ranking of what, in my opinion, would be the top five World Series matchups that would be good for MLB and from my perspective.
#5: Giants vs. Indians
At first glance, this wouldn’t seem to satisfy either. The Giants are one of the teams I’d rather not see in the World Series, and the Indians don’t seem to be much of a ratings driver. However, I think this series would be full of good pitching matchups, I think the Giants (with their “even year” story) would be a good draw, and I think another Cleveland team trying to win (and turn Cleveland into the new Boston) would also be a big draw. I’d overcome my dislike of the Giants to see how their rotation of Bumgarner-Cueto-Samardzija-Peavy matches up with Kluber-Tomlin-Salazar-Bauer. Oh, and both teams are decent at producing runs, too.
#4: Nationals vs. Astros
The Astros were close to being left for dead not long ago, but have rebounded nicely to be back in contention. They are still well back in the division, but with the injuries to the Rangers pitching, they could possibly still catch them. The Nationals may not have as good of a rotation as they did last year, but it’s still pretty good, and they have this guy named Bryce Harper, who you might have heard of. Plus, the Astros are a young team, with characters, who are hyped up by the media. Plus, neither team has ever won, and both come from long-suffering sports cities. (Houston is so long-suffering they didn’t even merit a mention in SBNation’s post about long-suffering sports cities.) Houston last saw a championship in 1995. Two years later, they lost their football team to Nashville, although they got an expansion team back. They’ve never had a team reach a Super Bowl, they’ve only reached the one World Series. If you count soccer, the Houston Dynamo won back-to-back MLS titles, but that’s about it for sporting success. The DC area hasn’t seen a championship since the Super Bowl win in January of 1992.
The series would promise to have plenty of home runs, strikeouts, and maybe some tempers. Definitely watchable, and if I can’t see my team win, I’d like to see a team who hasn’t had a lot of success.
#3: Cubs vs. Astros
I don’t like the Cubs. But it’s hard to say that the story of the Cubs reaching their first World Series since 1945 wouldn’t be a good thing for baseball. These teams were division rivals for a few years, but without much bad blood. I’ve already said plenty about the Astros. The Cubs have a rotation to rival the Giants and the Indians among postseason contenders, and plenty of star power. They are also generally fundamentally sound. It would be great (for baseball and for nostalgia) if one of the Wrigley Field games would be played during the day. I believe that the sheer number of night games (and all the big games being played late) have played a large role in young fans gravitating towards football as opposed to baseball. Football still is mostly day games, and the Super Bowl starts at a much earlier time than any World Series game has in almost 30 years (the last day game was Game 6 in 1987.) Yes, any Cubs series would be ridiculously overhyped by Fox, and that would be a bit of a turnoff, but it’s impossible to deny that it would probably be fun to watch, and it would almost definitely be good for ratings.
#2: Cubs vs. Indians
Everything said above about both the Cubs and Indians would apply here, but the storyline of the two of them playing each other would make the whole greater than the sum of the parts. Everyone knows that the Cubs have the longest World Series drought, but the Indians have the second-longest, last winning in 1948. This means that the vast majority of the fans of both teams were not alive the last time their team won the World Series.
Plus, imagine the pitching matchups. Aces up and down the rotation for both teams. There are even more storylines, with Terry Francona trying to end the curse for one team against his former boss in Boston, who has assembled a roster to end the curse in Chicago.
#1: Diamondbacks vs. Anyone
Of course, I’m a Diamondbacks fan, this is what I want. And it looks like I can’t have it. But if it were to happen, it could be not only best for me, but best for baseball.
Here’s what it would take for it to happen. Zack Greinke continues pitching the way he has for the past few weeks. Shelby Miller suddenly becomes one of the best pitchers in baseball. The rest of the rotation follows suit. David Peralta goes on an unbelievable tear (when he comes off the DL, of course) and, along with Jake Lamb and Paul Goldschmidt, puts together an offense that terrorizes everyone in the National League. Jean Segura keeps it up. Michael Bourn plays well enough that when A.J. Pollock comes back, he stays as the fourth outfielder. Peter O’Brien mashes 30 home runs, and with Peralta, becomes a marketable player that gives good interviews and energizes the team.
Is that going to happen? Almost certainly not. But if it did, it would provide one of the best stories in baseball history. A team largely composed of misfits and cast-offs, getting off to a terrible start, dealing with adversity, and coming through to the World Series? (Disney is already buying the movie rights.) Sure, it almost certainly won’t happen. But if it did...
And here’s how the World Series would go. Jake Barrett becomes the closer (Ziegler goes back to fireman and gets a double play in every game) and gets the last out of the series, thereby bringing a title home, just as Lebron did. Tuffy Gosewisch provides go-ahead hits in the late innings. Jim gets called upon to manage the team and appoints DC as his bench coach. Paul Goldschmidt, for his calm demeanor, kindness to all, and attention to his job, wins the presidential election as a write-in.
The Arizona Diamondbacks winning the World Series in this fashion is not only what we want to happen, it’s what America needs! It’s what Disney needs! It would allow children to once again dream of a better world!