Major League Baseball this week will be seen on the ABC broadcast network in the United States for the first time since 1995 as the league’s newly expanded playoffs begin.
Eight different three-game Wild Card series will start on September 29 and 30 as MLB and the MLB Players Association in July agreed to expand this year’s playoffs from 10 teams to 16 amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
ESPN gained exclusive rights to seven of the eight newly created first-round series, with TBS carrying the other, a set between the Tampa Bay Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. Each of those first-round series will be a best-of-three format. But to ease the programming load on ESPN and ESPN2, the Walt Disney Co.-owned outlet will also employ sister broadcast network ABC to help carry those games.
ABC’s coverage will begin with the Houston Astros playing at the Minnesota Twins on September 29 at 2 p.m. ET, and the Miami Marlins at Chicago Cubs on September 30 at the same time. Programming plans for October 1 and 2 will be made later this week.
ABC’s last airing of MLB was Game 5 of the 1995 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians. This also represents a rare airing of early-stage baseball postseason play as for the past 14 years, Wild Card and Division Series games have entirely been shown on cable TV outlets such as TBS, FS1, and the MLB Network.
ABC’s relationship with MLB dates to 1953, but the network had a particularly strong presence with the league during the 1970s and 1980s, and was notably on the air with its coverage of the 1989 World Series during the Loma Prieta earthquake in the California Bay Area.
Back in July when this year’s expanded MLB playoff format was finalized, ESPN president Jimmy Pitaro predicted this coming week would be a frenetic one for the network and baseball at large, as September 29 and October 2 will feature four games, while September 30 will have a full set of eight playoff games, and October 1 could have as many as eight depending on results earlier in the week.
“We know fans have been craving live baseball and we’re proud to work with our friends at MLB to offer what will be a special four days this fall,” Pitaro said then.
The expanded MLB playoffs involves both clubs that suffered large-scale outbreaks of Covid-19 during the season and extensive schedule disruptions because of them, the Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals. And for the first time in MLB history, two losing clubs will also be involved in the postseason: the Houston Astros and Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s fitting for 2020 and everything we went through,” said Brewers star outfielder Christian Yelich. “This year’s a unique one. There’s so many challenges we had to go through on a daily basis behind the scenes, things you don’t deal with in a normal year.”
The Marlins are also reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2003, while the San Diego Padres are in the for the first time since 2006.
MLB’s enlarged playoff format will allow MLB to retain close to $1bn in national television revenue, crucial money given the league lost nearly two-thirds of its game schedule to the pandemic and all of its regular season gate revenue. MLB does hope to have attending fans for its National League Championship Series and World Series set for Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas.
It remains uncertain whether the expanded playoffs will be a part of future MLB seasons, and the matter will be a subject of labor negotiations with the MLBPA. But the league and commissioner Rob Manfred in particular relish the opportunity for some enlargement from the prior 10-team format to help drive additional revenue and gain another tool in the recruitment of younger fans.