- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philadelphia Phillies fans rejoiced after their team topped the Colorado Rockies 6-5 in Game 3 of the National League Division Series, if for no other reason than they could finally go to bed.

The tense playoff game finished after midnight Monday in Denver and past 2 a.m. on the East Coast, highlighting the challenges Major League Baseball faces in scheduling games to please the most fans.

“We have to consider a lot of factors when we’re scheduling the games,” baseball spokesman Matt Bourne said when asked why the game started after 10 p.m. Eastern time. “When you have so many games taking place in such a short period of time, some games are going to scheduled during the day and some are at night.”

The baseball postseason is uniquely challenging to schedule - a struggle particularly in evidence this year, when the division series featured eight teams from four time zones.

Broadcast partner TBS was forced to find windows for at least three live games in a single day, taking into account everything from the location of games to the weather.

The result for the division series was a schedule often featuring one day game, a second game starting around 6 or 7 p.m. and a third night game beginning between 9:30 and 10:15 p.m. Sunday’s schedule was to feature four games, but a sweep by the Los Angeles Dodgers over the St. Louis Cardinals last week eliminated that possibility.

“It’s really like a jigsaw puzzle,” Bourne said. “You look at the clubs that are involved. You have to take into consideration time zones and the matchups and how much the clubs have to travel back and forth. There are so many factors that are involved. It’s more art than science.”

Nearly all of baseball’s playoff games have been played outdoors this year, subjecting players to distracting shadows during day games and chilly temperatures at night. The temperature for the Phillies-Rockies game Sunday night was 35 degrees, making it one of the coldest postseason games on record. The game had been rescheduled from Saturday, when snow and temperatures below 20 degrees forced a postponement.

“Was it good to have the Phillies-Rockies as the nightcap? No, but I’d be hard-pressed to figure out how they’d scramble things around to make it work better,” said Maury Brown, founder of the Business of Sports Network and bizofbaseball.com.

In past seasons, more than one network broadcast games of the division series, putting games opposite one another or overlapping by several innings.

An ill-fated venture with ABC and NBC known as “The Baseball Network” in 1995 featured regional broadcasts of playoff games - some of which were not available in all markets.

Baseball since has learned that exclusive, national broadcasts of all playoff games is most satisfying to fans, even if that means unfavorable start times.

“You want to be able to have the fan watch every inning of every game,” Bourne said. “You don’t necessarily want to overlap these games so that fans have to make a choice.”

Despite some complaints, TBS reported that an average of more than 4.7 million fans have tuned into division series games this season, an 11 percent increase over last year. Viewership for the first day of the playoffs was the highest in five years, according to the network.

Sports leagues say they do the best they can for fans and listen to feedback. But while many fans protest the playing of games late at night, research shows that those later games draw the highest number of viewers, pulling in fans from the West Coast.

“You want the games to end in that window around the 11 o’clock hour when the largest number of people are in front of their television sets from East Coast to West Coast,” Bourne said. “We want to make it available to the largest number of fans possible.”

Baseball did, however, announce earlier this year that start times for the World Series would be pushed up about 40 minutes, with all games to start before 8 p.m. Eastern time. The decision came at the urging of commissioner Bud Selig, who feared the late games extended beyond when many young fans could watch.

The scheduling challenge is not unique to baseball. The NBA and NHL, which qualify twice as many teams into the playoffs, have placed games on two networks, with some games beginning after 10 p.m. To avoid conflicts, the league often schedules off days between games or a series, prompting criticism that the postseason goes on too long.

The NFL arguably has been the most consistent with its scheduling over the years, but the league did move up the start time for its weekly “Monday Night Football’ game on ESPN from 9 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

For baseball, finding consistency in the postseason has proved tricky - every year features a different roster of playoff teams from different cities and time zones.

“It makes it difficult,” Brown said. “They’re working with their broadcast partners to lock in set times, but I don’t know if it can be done.”

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