It’s Time for MLB Realignment

linkedin.png  By: Taylor Christie

The year was 1997. Interleague play had finally arrived and for the first time in 40 years, two New York teams would play a regular season baseball game. Fans would finally get the Subway Series they had been waiting for between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. This was not just a special occasion for these New York teams, with the establishment of interleague play, teams from the National League would play teams from the American League during the regular season for the first time. It was the beginning of a new brand of baseball.

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The upcoming 2016 season will mark the 20th Anniversary of interleague play. As the released schedule shows, the Padres will visit the Blue Jays for the first time this coming season. This is the only location-specific interleague matchup that has not yet occurred during the history of interleague play. There has been much controversy over the past years concerning whether or not interleague play has worn out its welcome. Is interleague play still fun for fans? By examining statistics and arguments regarding interleague play today, I believe it is time to bring back tradition and realign major league baseball.

Interleague games had been routine in other major professional sports, but baseball held out for nearly a century in the interest of post-season purity. Before the 1997 season, American League and National League matchups only occurred during the All-Star Game and the World Series. The introduction of interleague play in 1997 was designed to lower costs to organizations within the league and to boost attendance. This change in the MLB schedule was aimed at improving the profitability of major league clubs by simultaneously reducing travel costs and increasing revenues by filling more seats at the stadiums. This was shown to be true for series between teams such as the New York Mets and the New York Yankees, but not for the less popular match-ups.

2015 attendance figures show that interleague play no longer appears to be as popular as it once was. The 299 interleague dates drew 9,461,036 fans to the ballparks, an average of 31,642 per date. Non interleague games during this time averaged 30,358 per date. This means that interleague games averaged only 4.2% higher than non-interleague games. As illustrated in the chart below, when comparing average overall attendance and interleague attendance averages per season, one could see that there is no longer a large attendance jump for these interleague match ups. Interleague games have always been associated with higher attendances, but this relationship as illustrated, has been weakening over time.

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Interleague play used to be something that fans would look forward to, but with it happening so often now there is no buildup of anticipation. Before 2013 the National League had 16 teams and the American League had 14, therefore to even up the leagues the Houston Astros were moved to the American League. Before this league adjustment, nearly all interleague games were played from late May until early July. With the Astros being moved to the American League, this created an uneven number of teams in each league (15 teams), which resulted in one interleague game played nearly every day of the season. The novelty of interleague play has begun to wear off over time and the everyday nature of these games are hurting interleague play even more, fans are no longer as captivated when it comes to these particular match ups since they are now happening so often.

A specific type of interleague play that is important to examine are interleague rivalry games. Major league baseball schedules six games every season for 10 pairs of geographical interleague rivals; these games are referred to as interleague rivalry games. For example, the New York Yankees and New York Mets would be considered interleague rivals. About one-third of all interleague games are rivalry games. These interleague rivalry games attracted 8,400 more fans in the first four years of interleague play, but during the time period of 2005-2009 these rivalry games attracted only 2,000 more fans. These differences in attendance figures suggest that the appeal of interleague rivalries seems to be wearing off. These rivalry games used to be some of the most highly anticipated games. Before the introduction of interleague play fans would only see these specific teams and players face off against one another if they both made it to the World Series.

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When looking at the New York Yankees and New York Mets Subway Series history in particular, we can see this lack of “anticipation” and ticket sales. That historical night in June of 1997, where these two faced off for the first time during the regular season, until June of 1999 can be associated with attendance records between 53,404 and 56,294. In comparison, the past three years have only attracted between 31,877 and 47,909. Not only are the attendance figures considerably lower but there is also a larger deviation.

Interleague play used to be a treat for fans, reserved for two special events, the All-Star Game and the World Series. With the introduction of interleague play these special events no longer hold as much meaning. TV ratings support this argument. The All Star Game attracted 18 million viewers in 1998 and only 10.9 million in 2015. Even more surprising, the World Series had over 20 million viewers in 1998 and in 2015 had the lowest viewed Game 1 in the history of baseball, with about only 12.2 million viewers. Interleague play cheapens the World Series. Instead of enhancing natural rivalries, it devalues them because these teams will play every year. The World Series and All-Star Game are robbed of the mystique that used to result from the two leagues playing completely exclusive schedules during the regular season.

When interleague play was discussed before it’s introduction in 1997, baseball officials projected an attendance increase of about 32 percent for interleague games over the traditional schedule. As the statistics provided above show, this hypothesized result of interleague play has not been true. Interleague play used to be one of the most exhilarating chunks of schedule during the major league baseball season. But this was ruined by the MLB wanting to capitalize on the popularity of these American League vs. National League battles. Soon we will start thinking of interleague games as any other games; that is if it hasn’t happened already.

There has been talk about the MLB adding two more teams. If this is true, that would mean that both leagues would have 16 teams, an even number. My recommendation after looking into the history and statistics of interleague play is to bring back tradition. With an even number of teams there would be no need for interleague play within major league baseball. By abolishing interleague play and reinstating league pride, fans love for baseball and these interleague games will be restored.

Little things that made the game America’s pastime was the game on the sandlots, stickball in the city streets, and all the boxes of Cracker Jacks in the stands at the games. But most importantly, baseball’s post season used to be unlike that of any other sport. In the case of the World Series, the “best in the American League” playing the “best in the National League” for the only time that entire year. The anticipation leading up to that series being unlike any other games that season.

Baseball fans used to treasure the limited times they would get to witness these interleague match ups. Looking back in time to 1997, it made sense why major league baseball created interleague play. At the time the excitement of interleague match ups boosted ticket sales and revenue. The problem is, 20 years later this enjoyment has dwindled away. Baseball fans have become spoiled over the years, now receiving at least one interleague game every day of the regular season. Interleague play has become an ordinary affair.

By turning back to tradition and eliminating interleague play from the regular season, fans will begin to appreciate these games once again. By providing fans with something to look forward to at the end of the season, I believe that the traditional appeal and love for baseball will return.

As Detroit Tigers’ former manager Jim Leyland stated back in 2011, “At some point, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, but at some point you’ve got to get baseball back to the same set of rules”. After all, tradition is what makes baseball.

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