In 1961, the American League added two teams. To ensure that the 10 teams played an equal number of games against each other, the league moved from 154 games to 162, while the National League stayed put at 154. The following season, the National League followed suit, expanding both the number of teams and the number of games on the schedule. With the exception of strike seasons, the MLB schedule has remained at 162 games. The current setup has teams play 19 games against teams in their own division, with 66 games of the remaining games coming against the rest of the league, and 20 against interleague opponents. This year, more off days pushed up the start of baseball season. That early start coupled with horrendous weather has caused a large number of postponements, which has led to calls for a 154-game season. While I personally prefer the current schedule, a reduction in games is pretty doable.
First, let’s talk about a reason that shouldn’t be used as a justification to shorten the regular season: this year’s postponements. While postponements are drawing a lot of attention, we are likely dealing with a set of unique circumstances that won’t affect future seasons. The season did start a few days earlier than we’ve typically seen, but the biggest factor in all of these postponements isn’t the early start; it’s the bad weather. The number of postponements and cold weather games this season compared to past seasons suggests that this year’s weather is an anomaly unlikely to cause similar disruptions in future seasons. Cutting eight games from the schedule after more than 50 years because of somewhat unusual weather in one year seems unnecessary. If the goal is to move the season back to early April, a half-dozen Saturday day-night doubleheaders later in the summer would accomplish the same thing.
Players certainly seem like they would be willing to drop down to a 154-game schedule, as getting a few extra days off was an important negotiating point in the last round of collective bargaining with the owners. Removing eight games from the schedule would allow players the same number of days off they just bargained for and allow the league to start the season in early April instead of late March. From a pure feasibility standpoint, there is some merit to it, and it doesn’t seem like it would make a ton of difference to fans. The season would be about as long as it used to be; the handful of extra off days spread out over the course of six months wouldn’t make its presence deeply felt. The feel of a baseball season would hardly be impacted. The impediment, seemingly, would be money.
Over at The Athletic, Jayson Stark did some excellent reporting discussing the potential for a 154-game season. Particularly illuminating to me was the nugget that a vast majority of teams would be happy to drop down to an 154-game schedule. Stark did indicate that the minority of teams who would object to a shorter season would have very loud objections.
Stark estimated that a team like the Yankees might lose more than $10 million in gate and concession revenue. Losing four home dates, assuming a couple are less desirable weekday games in April plus a couple Monday games in the summer probably, might have a slightly smaller affect than that as the number of tickets sold for those games is likely to be somewhat lower than average. I am skeptical that teams could raise prices enough to recoup all of that money lost. I would be surprised if teams aren’t already doing whatever they can to maximize ticket and concession revenue. They may be able to get some of that money back, however, particularly from season ticket holders. They could, for example, provide 5% less inventory by taking away four games, but only drop season ticket prices by 3%, thus getting back some of the lost money while still providing a discount compared to what season ticket holders previously paid.
In his piece, Stark discussed the potential problems that might emerge with teams’ contracts with regional sports networks. Contractually, it is possible teams promised a certain number of games, making a change in the schedule challenging. But in terms of revenue, the money lost would be fairly insignificant. The lost revenue for regional television partners would be pretty minimal as the vast majority of that income derives from cable subscriber fees rather than advertising. Nationally, baseball would have little trouble fulfilling any of their deals, as the number of national games seems unlikely to change.
If the Yankees’ lost revenues are somewhere around $10 million, we might be able to roughly estimate the total losses to be somewhere in the $100 million to $150 million range before considering mitigation through some minor price increases. While MLB owners haven’t ever easily given up that much money, we are probably looking at something in the range of 1% or less of total MLB revenues. There might be talk of the players having to sacrifice pay, but these small decreases in overall revenue shouldn’t significantly alter the player-owner split as it is currently structured, and would be the subject of bargaining. Players get the off days they crave, the season starts in April, and the revenue split for the players and owners would likely remain roughly the same.
Financially, dropping eight games from the schedule is probably a lot more feasible than one might think. Of course, making the situation financially feasible doesn’t necessarily make it a great idea. I realize this makes me a bit of a curmudgeon, but I’m used to records and performances based on a 162-game schedule. And the baseball season is long. That’s a feature, not a bug. While 154 games might not feel that different, as someone who consumes baseball in a near-constant fashion all of the months of the year, I would rather have those 120 meaningful regular season games than not have them. The grind of the season with relatively few of the teams qualifying for the playoffs helps make the regular season more special than that of the other major sports.
These reasons aren’t necessarily compelling enough to keep the schedule the way it is. Perhaps someone else can come up with better ones. But it certainly doesn’t seem like finances should be a major impediment.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.