Once, when reminiscing of the time he took part in an inter-house ‘sudden death’ football competition as a schoolboy in north-west London, Charles Adcock, facial follicles proudly embowering his upper lip, spawned an idea.
So, using the power granted to him as the Honorary Secretary of England’s governing body of football, he proposed a tournament – the Challenge Cup — ‘for which all clubs belonging to The Association should be invited to compete.’ His proposition was met with a favourable response and a few months later, at a subsequent meeting, the idea was approved. Martin, Hall & Co. crafted a trophy for a measly £20 and fifteen clubs signed-on for the inaugural tournament.
Today, 141 years later, over 750 clubs compete in Adcock’s little event, now known simply as the FA Cup — the oldest domestic football Cup competition in the world. In addition to the 92 teams from the top four divisions, the tournament is open to the semi-pro and amateur clubs that make up the lower grades of English football, all of which have the opportunity to advance to the latter parts of the tournament where the top tier teams (and potential cash windfalls) are waiting.
There is a huge sense of domestic pride about the FA Cup. No greater evidence of this is the fact that the tournament was named as a ‘cultural icon of England’ by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport next to things such as Stonehenge, the Double Decker bus, and a Cup of Tea.
Undoubtedly, there is something inherently magical about it. This mythology is drawn from the fact that, at its essence, every football team in England has the opportunity to win. Each supporter base, no matter how small or cash-strapped their club might be, can harbour the hope that it is their beloved team which might slay the dragon, causing an upset that generates back page news and grants them their 15 minutes.
It is a tournament that gives a part-time plumber from Sheffield, or a local cabinetmaker from Norwich, the opportunity to win his way to Wembley Stadium, one of the most famous football pitches in England. And, in the process, earn him the right to step foot on the hallowed turf with men who earn the equivalent of a small country’s Gross Domestic Product.
The tournament, which runs from August through to May the following year, also offers football fans a respite from the monotony of a long season. A team, which may be treading water in the most vanilla place on the league table – “mid-table,” “no-man’s-land,” or worse still, “Fulham” — is given newfound hope that their squad could still achieve greatness on the national stage. In a season that stretches over nine months and 38 league games, this injection of fan interest cannot be emphasized enough.
Which is why, in a sport that plays 162 (!) regular season games over six exhausting months, an FA Cup-style knockout tournament could be exactly what Major League Baseball needs.
It could be argued that outside of the playoffs and the World Series, the most exciting moment of the MLB season is Opening Day. Thomas Boswell penned the book, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, chronicling the day when the President throws out the first pitch and the crowd hushes as it awaits the first call of, “Play ball!” It is a day ingrained in the American psyche, where fathers take sons to watch their new-look team embark on the long journey to baseball immortality. The record of each team is 0-0, the purest of all standings. It is an even playing field.
Ultimately, it is a day of hope.
That hope, which is so rampant as the Star Spangled Banner crackles through the ballpark speakers on Opening Day, lasts long into the summer for some fortunate fanbases. But for many, it’s as fleeting as a first pitch fastball. By May, the writing is often on the wall for many teams, fans already coming to the unpleasant realization that this year their team just doesn’t have it. Come July, as the MLB All-Star Game approaches, these fans have turned their attention to NFL training camp, reinvesting their time into studying up on the new hot Quarterback their football team has drafted, rather than watching their baseball team wallow at the bottom of their division… with 80 games to go in the season.
An in-season tournament offers them hope, no matter what the regular season standings say.
Clubs and supporters from the top of the baseball pyramid aren’t the only ones who may benefit from a change in routine.
For many, life in the minor leagues is a demanding pursuit. Long bus trips to remote destinations seem to occur all too frequently. Comfort Inn beds, if they’re lucky, are cold and lumpy. The menu at the local Applebee’s, a plethora of exciting choices at first glance, begins to look all too familiar about three weeks into the season. And, for most, this will be the pinnacle of their baseball career. Some will work their way up the baseball pecking order and on to a major league roster. But for most, their stories will be of life on the road and the obscure places they’ve visited. As Peter Applebome observes in his 2007 New York Times piece about the life of a minor league ball player: their team bus, the one constant in their season, is the closest thing to a home.
In a country where the sporting audience is constantly craving a new David to cheer for against Goliath, the mere chance that a team of kids from the minor leagues might live out their dream of playing against Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium is too good to pass up.
Imagine for a second that the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs make a Cinderella run to the final (think Barnsley, flirting with League Championship relegation, going on an improbable run in the 2007/08 FA Cup, defeating Liverpool and Chelsea on the way to the semi-finals) and meeting the New York Yankees, whilst the Boston Red Sox players cheer on their young compatriots from behind the dugout. Besides Yankees fans, who wouldn’t be rooting for the underdog Portland Sea Dogs?
History would suggest that, like the FA Cup, two MLB teams would ultimately meet in the final. But, like mid-table Football League Championship teams Millwall (2003/04) and Cardiff City (2007/08) making it to the FA Cup final in recent years, there are always surprises.
Using the same system that is applied in the FA Cup – and, to keep it simple, using the same prize money structure — the tournament could conceivably play out like this:
Extra Preliminary Round (18 New Entries) – Winners (9) $1,200
Top three teams (based on record from the year prior) from the Independent Minor Leagues (those that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball), excluding Independent Winter Leagues.
(American Association – 3 teams, Atlantic League of Professional Baseball – 3 teams, North American League – 3 teams, Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball – 3 teams, Frontier League – 3 teams, Pecos League — 3 teams)
Preliminary Round (115 New Entries) – Winners (62) $2,400
Class A (Short Season), Rookie Leagues (Advanced), Rookie Leagues and Fall Leagues
(New York - Penn League – 14 teams, Northwest League – 8 teams, Appalachian League – 10 teams, Pioneer League – 8 teams, Arizona League – 11 teams, Dominican Summer League – 34 teams, Gulf Coast League – 9 teams, Venezuelan Summer League – 9 teams, Arizona Fall League – 6 teams)
First Round Qualifying (60 New Entries) – Winners (56) $4,750
Class A, Class A Advanced
(Midwest League – 16 teams, South Atlantic League – 14 teams, California League – 10 teams, Carolina League – 8 teams, Florida State League – 12 teams)
Second Round Qualifying – Winners (28) $7,200
Third Round Qualifying – Winners (14) $12,000
First Round Proper (30 New Entries) – Winners (22) $28,500
Double-A (Eastern League – 12 teams, Southern League – 10 teams, Texas League – 8 teams)
Second Round Proper (46 New Entries) – Winners (34) - $43,000
Triple-A (International League – 14 teams, Pacific Coast League – 16 teams, Mexican League – 16 teams)
Third Round Proper (30 New Entries) – Winners (32) – $107,000
Major League Baseball (MLB – 30 teams)
Fourth Round Proper – Winners (16) – $143,000
Fifth Round Proper – Winners (8) – $285,000
Sixth Round Proper – Winners (4) - $570,000
Semi-Finals – Winners (2) - $1,500,000, Runners-up (2) - $750,000
Final – Winner (1) $3,000,000, Runner-up (1) - $1,500,000
In 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on the “154-game solution.” Posnanski argues, to great affect, that many in the baseball fraternity feel that the baseball season is too long. He also acknowledges that baseball, more than any other sport, bows to history and as such has the most trepadation to change. Yet, a shorter season – namely 154 games – is not change. It’s baseball history:
Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in a 154-game season. Ted Williams hit .400 in a 154-game season. The Giants won the ‘51 pennant after a 154-game season. (O.K., 157, including the playoff with Brooklyn.) Lefty Grove won 31 in a 154-game season. This is baseball’s heritage. Sure, owners would bark because of lost revenue. But it’s just eight games, and a little ticket scarcity probably wouldn’t hurt at the gate. You wish the people running baseball would consider something other than today’s profits.
With a shorter regular season and the insertion of an FA Cup-style knockout tournament, maybe the owners wouldn’t lose this revenue? Besides, it’s not as if baseball is struggling. In 2012, MLB posted its 10th consecutive year of record revenue, with $7.5 billion.
Additionally, a television deal would need to be struck for the exclusive rights to the tournament, and with new player FOX Sports 1 on the scene, the price would be driven sky-high. Major League Baseball teams, inserted into the tournament in the Third Round Proper, would play a maximum of 6 additional games (assuming they make the final) - still less than the current 162 game regular season number. Lower grade teams, struggling to make ends meet day-to-day, would receive cash bonuses for qualifying wins, allowing them new funds to buy equipment and uniforms.
Such a tournament, one that would increase awareness of grassroots baseball and promote participation of the game, can’t be a bad thing. If it gets talking heads bloviating on ESPN, then even better. And, ultimately, if it provides the spark baseball yearns for during the dog days of summer when the drawn-out season is seemingly stuck on autopilot, then that may be the most important accomplishment of all.