Mid-Season Local TV Ratings And Measuring Fan Engagement

Sports Business Journal published an article on Monday sounding the alarm about the Los Angeles Dodgers’ plummeting local TV ratings. Last season, the Dodgers averaged 226,000 households per game telecast. This season, the average is 40,000 households.

Of course the Dodgers’ ratings have plummeted. The team’s new regional sports network — SportsNetLA — isn’t available to fans who don’t subscribe to Time Warner Cable, because the network has been unable to reach distribution deals with the other cable and satellite companies like DirecTV and DISH. Only 30% of households in Los Angeles have Time Warner Cable and, thus, access to SportsNetLA. But the Dodgers lead the majors in attendance with 2,277,891 tickets sold through 49 home games, for an average of 46,487 per game.

The Houston Astros have the same ratings problem but without the benefit of a full ballpark every night. Their joint regional sports network with the Houston Rockets — Comcast SportsNet Houston — isn’t carried by any cable or satellite company other than Comcast. The situation is so dire that Comcast forced the RSN into bankruptcy last year. The dispute has now spawned additional litigation in state and federal court.

That being said, only a handful of teams have seen their average game viewership rise in the first half of the season when compared to the average game viewership for the entirety of 2013. The Yankees’ have seen the biggest bump — likely the result of Derek Jeter‘s retirement tour and the addition of Masahiro Tanaka. But the Mets, Angels, White Sox, Indians, Athletics and Padres have also seen jumps in their ratings.

For the last several years, Sports Business Journal has published a variety of mid-season and end-of-season rating information — a kind of winners and losers of ratings for that time period. SBJ relies on Nielsen’s ratings, which are proprietary and not publicly available for each team for each season or half-season. Neilsen doesn’t measure TV ratings in Canada, so we don’t have  any ratings information on the Blue Jays. We also lack information on teams that don’t fall someone near the top of the ratings scale or the bottom, or haven’t seen big changes in their ratings in the last several years, like the Diamondbacks, Mariners and Rockies.

I’ve taken SBJ’s stories from the last few years and pieced together a chart showing the number of  households in each team’s Designated Market Area in 2014 (as defined by Nielsen) and the average number of households viewing the team’s telecasts in various time periods. I recognize that the population in each DMA may have shifted somewhat since 2012, but not enough to undermine the value of the chart. If you want to dig into the numbers, you can find links to SBJ’s most recent stories here, here and here. I’ve separately tracked down some ratings information on the Chicago Cubs and the Tampa Bay Rays.

Team Households in TV Market Ave. HHS 2012 Season Ave. HHS Mid-2013 Season Ave. HHS 2013 Season Ave. HHS Mid-2014 Season
Mets 7,461,030 173,000 135,000 118,000 138,000
Yankees 7,461,030 296,000 185,000 194,000 228,000
Angels 5,665,780 83,000 69,000 80,000
Dodgers 5,665,780 109,000 126,000 154,000 40,000
Cubs 3,534,080 62,000 56,000 56,500 52,000
White Sox 3,534,080 73,000 42,000 40,000  49,000
Phillies 2,963,500 168,000 113,000 100,000
Rangers 2,655,290 151,000 123,000 121,000 71,000
Athletics 2,518,900 32,000 29,000 31,500 33,000
Giants 2,518,900 113,000 104,000
Red Sox 2,433,040 153,000 163,000 173,000 128,000
Nationals 2,412,250 61,000 69,000 46,000
Braves 2,375,050 76,000 104,500 96,000 67,000
Astros 2,289,360 20,000 10,000 9,000 9,000
Tigers 1,856,310 168,000 165,000 178,000 140,000
Diamondbacks 1,855,310
Mariners 1,847,780
Rays 1,827,510 88,000 89,000
Twins 1,748,070 89,000 65,000
Marlins 1,663,290 32,000 18,000 27,000
Rockies 1,574,610
Indians 1,387,950 58,000 79,000 81,000 86,000
Cardinals 1,254,530 103,000 101,000 109,000 93,500
Pirates 1,181,540 75,500 72,500 94,000 75,000
Orioles 1,095,240 52,000 66,000 71,000
Padres 1,080,880 22,000 29,000 32,000
Royals 941,980 36,000 54,500 61,000
Brewers 916,950 47,000 41,000 54,000
Reds 906,210 78,000 71,000 70,000 58,000

We can see a few trends that cut across big and small-market teams. Winning generally boosts ratings. Competing for a spot in the postseason kicks up ratings in the second half. Losing hurts ratings. A lot. This is similar to what we’ve recently seen with attendance — a closer temporal nexus between winning and changes in fan behavior. Previous studies had shown that winning tended to increase attendance in the following season.

Still, we are missing critical information that would put the local TV ratings into better context. Radio, for example. SBJ published a story at the end of the 2012 season with information on radio ratings for the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons, but only for some of the teams. That information came from Arbitron, which, like Nielsen, sells its ratings information and doesn’t otherwise make it publicly available. Take a look at SBJ’s chart. Baseball on the radio is still a huge draw for teams in the Midwest, when seen as a percentage of the listening public, defined by Arbitron as anyone over the age of 12. And it’s become much more popular in the San Francisco Bay Area after the Giants won the World Series in 2010 and 2012.

At the same time, MLB Advanced Media’s CEO Bob Bowman told reporters in 2013 that MLB.tv at At-Bat had together experienced 20% year-over-year growth and had reached three million subscribers. But that’s all we know. We don’t know where those subscribers are, what and when they listen to games, or what and when they watch.

And then there’s the social media angle. Several sites have attempted to measure a team’s popularity and the intensity of its fans by using Google Trends (Five Thirty Eight) or Facebook likes (NYT’s The Upshot). But there are many questions raised by these analyses which haven’t been answered (this critique does a good job), which makes it difficult to know exactly what to do with the data.

The local TV ratings provide useful information, but they are only a snapshot, and even then, just a piece of the larger puzzle that is fan engagement. The other pieces include attendance, radio listeners, social media, and merchandise sales. Right now, only the attendance figures (or, more accurately, tickets sold) are publicly available for all games and all teams. We should work toward a metric that incorporates all of these data. But we are not there yet.



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Wendy writes about sports and the business of sports. She's been published most recently by Vice Sports, Deadspin and NewYorker.com. You can find her work at wendythurm.pressfolios.com and follow her on Twitter @hangingsliders.


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