Over the past year my sports preferences have changed quite a bit. I'm still as big of a fan of baseball as I ever was, but my interest in both basketball and football has dramatically waned. I used to be a slave to the television on Saturday and Sunday afternoons in the winter. This year, I watched the Huskies and little else. I missed both of the Seahawks' playoff games and I didn't catch much more than ten minutes of the regular season either.
The void was filled by soccer because soccer is awesome for about a bajillion reasons. In no particular order, the athleticism, the ridiculous goals, the volume of high quality leagues and players, and perhaps most of all, the absence of in-game commercial breaks* all combine to make soccer outrageously compelling.
*- Seriously, uninterrupted forty-five minute halves are SO much better to watch than the extra point - TV time out - kickoff - TV timeout - interception - TV timeout - one play - two minute warning and TV timeout sequence.
Not to be forgotten though, is that in soccer, fans of every team in a given league enter their season with a chance to win hardware. I don't necessarily mean winning the league title. The financial disparity between clubs in many top soccer leagues makes the Rays-Yankees divide look like a rounding error. Over the haul of a long season, teams on the short end of the financial stick just can't keep up with their more deep-pocketed league mates.
To an extent, this is an issue. The relegation system, an appetizing approach at first blush, presents an almost uncircumventable 'rich get richer' competitive balance problem where the same teams annually finish near the top of the league. A lack of revenue sharing further ensures that the most financially prosperous franchises (often buttressed by advertising and merchandise sales that lesser clubs can only dream about) continue to distance themselves from the also-rans. Essentially, if you're a fan in England, and you cheer for somebody besides Arsenal, Chelsea, or one of the Manchester's, you won't be rooting for a league winner. The same is mostly true in countries throughout the rest of the world.
Consequentially, the alarming financial disparities between club teams in soccer is a bit of a problem in most leagues. Fans and players need to feel like they, at least in the long term, have a chance to win. Without that mentality, nobody would bother with the charade of rooting for (and paying money to root for) a given sports team; how many fans do the Washington Generals have?
Fortunately, long ago, the powers that be in soccer came up with an enticing solution to the problem: cups.
Wherever there is a domestic league, there is also a single elimination, tournament style cup competition that runs alongside league play. Teams and fans embrace the cup, as it provides them a second chance to earn glory in a given season. The single elimination, NCAA tournament style format, in which random variation plays a much more prominent role in the cup's eventual winner than in league play, adds spice to the competition.
The thing is, the cup format isn't perfect for soccer. Sure, a thoroughly unremarkable team like Portsmouth (think Pittsburgh Pirates) may win the FA Cup once in a while, but it's a competition still largely won by the Goliath's of the domestic leagues. Thus, the value of the cup in soccer mainly lies in its illusion. Because individual games are somewhat up for grabs, any team can win the tournament, and even supporters of bad clubs enter the competition with high hopes, sentiment that only perks up after an early round victory or two. Fans fall for it every year, and in that sense, it's a lot like March Madness: small teams earn brief cult followings when they make a deep tournament run, but at the end of the line, it's usually the Kentucky's, Carolina's, and Duke's of the world hoisting the trophy. It's fun, if not ideally suited for soccer.
What it is perfect, absolutely perfect, for is baseball.
In baseball, anyone can win a short series. Even a thoroughly gutted and terrible team like Houston was able to scrap together a couple of series wins against good competition in the dog days of 2012. If introduced to baseball, literally every team would have a conceivable chance of winning the cup, presenting a tremendous opportunity for teams otherwise playing for nothing but pride to win a championship. And with that in mind, I would like to propose The Musial Cup.
Named in honor of the outstanding, tragically overlooked, and recently deceased Stan Musial, The Musial Cup will offer teams a second chance to win a title while also providing the league with a better cash-grab opportunity than expanding the playoffs. Here's how it would work:
The bottom sixteen teams from the previous season, based on winning percentage, would enter in the first round of the tournament. For this year, that would mean everyone that finished with a lower winning percentage than the Chicago White Sox's .525% mark would participate in round one. As with every round, seeding will be determined in a random draw. Each team would play a best of three series taking place at the end of Spring Training, with the winner moving on to Round 2.
Round 2 would occur at the end of April. The eight surviving teams from Round 1 would be joined by the White Sox, Dodgers, Cardinals, and Tigers. These twelve squads would again play in a randomly drawn best of three series, with the six winners from this round advancing to Round 3.
In Round 3, the six survivors will enter the arena with the ten teams that haven't appeared in the Cup yet. Again, the teams will be randomly drawn into a three game series, this one taking place during Memorial Day weekend. By the end of May, only eight teams will remain. The quarterfinal series' would be played over what is now the All-Star break (conceivably at a neutral location with an All-Star festivities period alongside). The semifinals would take place at the end of August and then a one game championship would determine the Cup's winner a day after the end of the regular season.
If you think about it, the Cup has everything. Chance for everyone to win while still rewarding the best teams? Check. Short series drama? Absolutely. Moreover, the tournament can be employed by teams in a number of creative ways.
If, like in most soccer tournaments, more players are eligible for Cup matches (let's say that teams can promote anyone in their system without the normal restrictions associated with a major league call-up) a Cup could be a fantastic way to give a prospect experience against big league competition without affecting the standings or their time clock. Teams would also be forced to juggle their ambitions in both the Cup and the regular season. These factors instantly create exciting managerial decisions: Would someone like Danny Hultzen get a spot start in an early round game? Will the Nationals throw Stephen Strasburg in a Cup rubber match, or save his arm for the pennant run?
And if the strategic elements sound fun, that's really just a start. The short series would create drama and upsets are inevitable. The best part might be the fallout: can you imagine the circus in the Yankee clubhouse after they lose a Round 4 match-up with Kansas City?
There would certainly be logistical hurdles. League games couldn't happen during Cup contest weekends and the extra flying would be a potential hassle (the Players Union would certainly demand a shorter regular season, if not more, as a concession). Still, if run properly, the Cup would be both entertaining and financially lucrative. The Cup would allow fans an opportunity to see their teams win another championship, and by turning ~3% of the regular season into near elimination or sudden death games, MLB would lure additional viewers to highlighted weekend match-ups, which would surely draw more interest than a typical regular season game. Hell, if you could negotiate a separate TV arrangement for this thing, it starts to sound almost plausible.
Let's turn plausibility into reality. Mr. Selig, please consider The Musial Cup. It would be the most compelling and entertaining money-grab of your tenure.