Instant replay, wildcard expansion, and Bud Selig’s incentives

This month, Major League Baseball announced that it would be expanding its playoff field, starting with the upcoming season, by adding a second wild card team in each league. While Twitter-age baseball analysts roundly lamented the slow speed with which this announcement came, it looks like a lightning strike when compared to another still-waiting reform, instant replay, that has been “under advisement” for years.

I have written at length elsewhere about the importance of examining incentives to understand the real rationale behind a situation with apparently conflicting internal logic. Over at The Classical, Matthew Callan suggests that such an analysis will prove illuminating in the case of MLB reforms:

Bud Selig is arguably the most transformative figure in the history of Major League Baseball. Under his watch, we’ve seen more changes to the way the game is played and consumed than at any other time in the sport’s history.

Twenty years ago, adding a play-in game at the end of the regular season would have sent the game’s gatekeepers into fits of great weeping and gnashing of teeth. In the Bud Selig era, we hear nary a peep.

It’s telling that whenever he discusses the matter, Selig always makes sure to note how much the teams request it. “Clubs really want it,” he said back in January. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen an issue that the clubs want more than to have the extra wild card this year.”

When Selig says “clubs,” he means the owners thereof, all of whom stand to benefit from a play-in game and the additional revenue attended thereto. Selig has never shed his owner’s mentality, and every change under his watch as commissioner . . . has been allowed for the primary purpose of lining owners’ pocketbooks.

This isn’t to fault Selig, necessarily—if he didn’t grow the game’s revenues, he’d be a bad commissioner. However, it does explain the one change he remains reluctant to make: instant replay. The new wild card will become a reality mere months after the subject was first broached; in contrast, four years after being instituted on a trial basis, instant replay remains limited exclusively to home run reviews. Which are, as any baseball fan knows, sacred unto actual magic.

That the man who has dramatically altered baseball in countless ways suddenly becomes a traditionalist whenever instant replay is mentioned is hard to explain through anything but his owner’s mentality. His other innovations have the immediate, tangible benefit of increased revenue, but instant replay has none. In fact, it would cost the league money to equip every stadium with extra cameras and review booths and training the umpires to use them.

The lesson? Don’t hold your breath if you’re waiting for instant replay review of MLB’s decision to move the Expos to Washington, D.C. instead of contracting the Milwaukee Brewers.

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