This weekend was the start of the NBA’s brand-new In-Season Tournament. For those who are not paying attention, the NBA is running a new tournament that includes preexisting regular season games as a “Group Stage” and which will culminate into an 8-team knockout-style tournament in December to decide the winner of the NBA Cup. The goal of this is to increase viewership and interest in the early part of the year where the public’s attention is not as high as the stretch run or postseason.
Hosting an in-season tournament that runs parallel to the regularly scheduled games is far from a new idea. Soccer has utilized this for decades, both in the US and abroad. In America, the US Open Cup is over 100 years old and includes over 100 clubs from various levels. In Europe, there are several in-season tournaments, the oldest of which is the FA Cup in England, which began in 1871 and includes a whopping 732 clubs.
So all this got me thinking: What would an in-season tournament look like for baseball?
The sport is already set up in a way that is similar to soccer in that there are multiple levels of competition and a very large number of baseball teams spread out across North America. At first glance, baseball is perfectly equipped to enact a large-scale tournament like this.
On top of that, baseball has seen its World Baseball Classic absolutely take off. Prior to the 2023 regular season, more people attended the WBC, more people watched the WBC, more people bought WBC merchandise, and more media covered the WBC than ever before. The verdict is in: People love baseball knockout tournaments.
So let’s dive in. What would The Baseball Cup look like?
The Group Stage
There are roughly 300 NCAA Division 1 baseball programs. They’re all in the tournament. The goal of the group stage would be to whittle the 300 down to 152 college teams. This would be accomplished by setting up 75 groups of 4 that are regionally based. These four programs would face off against each other in a round-robin style tournament where the top two teams from each group would advance to Round 1. That gets us to 150 teams. The other two would be made up of the previous season’s College World Series Champion and Runner-Up, who will both get a bye into Round 1.
Logistically, this seems pretty easy to accomplish due to these groups being geographically based. It can occur on a single weekend where there is a host, and each team plays on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The NCAA baseball season starts in February, so this could get knocked out before the MLB/MiLB regular season begins.
The previous season’s College World Series Champion and Runner-Up now join the 150 teams who advanced out of the group stage in Round 1. Here, they get thrown in with the 120 Minor League Baseball clubs that make up Single-A, High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A.
Matchups will be randomly drawn. The location of the game is also part of the drawing. This means that you could potentially see the LSU Tigers host the Altoona Curve. Or the Indianapolis Indians host the Vanderbilt Commodores. The possibilities are endless! There could be some really fun and cool matchups in this round. And with one game, anything can happen here.
This round could take place in early April and would serve as the first game of the year for all MiLB teams.
We’re down to 136 teams. Just like Round 1, matchups and locations are randomly drawn. These games occur in mid- to late-April.
68 teams remain! Matchups and locations are once again randomly drawn. I don’t know how many college teams or low-level teams would be left here, but you know there are going to be a few Cinderellas left at this point. Games are played in early- to mid-May. This is where things get exciting because, after this round, the big guns arrive.
Major League Baseball enters the tournament and joins the 34 remaining teams. This is where the absolutely crazy matchups can occur. Can a college team make it this far and draw a Major League team? Can a Single-A team with a talented roster get here? The older, more experienced teams will make up the majority here, but you know there are going to be a few really cool storylines at this point.
Once again, matchups are randomly drawn. Locations are also randomly drawn unless a matchup includes just one MLB team, then the game will be hosted by the MLB team. As cool as it would be to see the Gerrit Cole and the New York Yankees travel to face Termarr Johnson and Greensboro, we’re going to assume the MLBPA won’t sign off on that.
Round 5 / Round 6 / Quarterfinals / Semifinals / Championship
32 teams remain, which means we are still guaranteed some non-MLB teams. At this point, a tournament bracket is randomly drawn so paths to the championship can be seen and dreams can run wild! Home teams are still randomly drawn for the remainder of the tournament unless the previous rule from Round 4 applies.
From a scheduling standpoint, you’d want to figure out a way to have the Championship game played before the end of August. We’re adding in a possible 6 more games for the MLB teams who make it all the way to the finals, so you’re looking at probably expanding the number of days in the entire regular season by almost 2 weeks to account for those 6 games, plus an additional off day for each one.
Here’s an example of what this would look like.
What is in it for MLB?
So now that we’ve got the logistics out of the way, why would MLB and the MLBPA agree to this? It’s a possible 6 more games thrown into the schedule. It brings up the possibility of some slightly embarrassing defeats. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot in it for the headliners.
Here’s where the bait comes in: Money. This is a made-for-TV event that will create some unique matchups that people are going to want to watch. Once you get a broadcast partner for this, the rest will sort itself out.
Paydays for players will be determined based on how far you advance. The further in the tournament you go, the bigger the paycheck. The same applies to the teams themselves. You advance, you get paid for it. This can also make for some pretty cool stories for a potential payday for Cinderellas. With the amateur restrictions being lifted throughout the NCAA, even the college kids can get in on the fun.
If player and team payouts can make the juice worth the squeeze for the NBA and the English Premier League, then the same can be accomplished with MLB.
In recent changes, Major League Baseball has shown they are willing to adapt and I think something like this could be a hit not just for Major League Baseball, but for the sport as a whole.
Would it get some jeers at first? Sure. But the first time you see some NCAA or MiLB team do something they’re not supposed to, you’ll be hooked.
Bring on The Baseball Cup!