The business of sport is explicitly the business of winning. Typically speaking, there’s no better marketing campaign than a winning season. Yet at its core, the business of sport is really about the business of fan engagement. That’s why some losing teams in certain markets still sell out year-after-year and winning teams don’t always score at the box office. Winning itself doesn’t necessarily guarantee business success. Relevance is the more acute gauge.
Witness Major League Baseball, which finds itself in a bull market going into this final weekend because there remains something to play for after five months of nearly daily attrition. And that’s great for fan engagement at this time of year.
At eight months, including pre-season and post-season, baseball is in the same ballpark as the NHL and NBA in terms of duration each year. Yet at 162 games in the marathon regular season alone, baseball is a very long haul, especially when compared to the efficiency of a compressed NFL season that packs its season into a 17-game schedule spanning 18 weeks, or just over five months.
For MLB to have half of its franchises — 15 of 30 ball clubs — in contention this last weekend of September is huge for media rightsholders, sponsors and licensees, let alone the teams that are still alive themselves.
Purists may struggle with the notion of baseball’s expanded wildcard structure, but without it, literally nobody would have been playing meaningful games in September because five of six divisions would have been decided by Labour Day weekend. The only real pennant race would have been between Texas, Houston and Seattle in the American League West. With the expanded playoff format, those three plus the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL and the Philadelphia Phillies, Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds in the NL have their respective fan bases on the proverbial edges of their seats.
It will make for an interesting weekend of scoreboard watching, at least among hard-core fans and those in the markets that are still in play.
And on that note, it’s been a big week for small-market franchises, namely the Milwaukee Bucks. They came through in surprising fashion to win the Damian Lillard trade sweepstakes, pairing up the former Portland Trailblazer star with Giannis Antetokounmpo and leaving much bigger markets such as Miami, Toronto, Philadelphia and New York City in the lurch.
So raise a beer mug to Milwaukee sports fans. Their Brewers have clinched the NL Central and their Bucks will be a going concern, yet again, in the NBA. Not bad for the 38th-largest television market in the United States, a community of only 900,200 television households and a greater metropolitan population of 1.45 million.
I’m tepid on the merger of the XFL and USFL and the creation of what will now be branded as the National Spring Football League, or NSFL. On the one hand, their prospects for survival are greater as one unified operation than they were as two competing spring football leagues. Yet there’s still much work to be done to achieve relevance and sustainability, and I’m not sure the right answer was a new, four-letter acronym. As we kicked around last week, the XFL brand scored much higher among American football fans than the USFL. The XFL would have been my brand of choice. Yet the proof will be in what the new NSFL looks like five months from now.
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