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.

61 Responses to “Mid-Season Local TV Ratings And Measuring Fan Engagement”

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  1. Wobatus says:

    The A’s still have a hard time getting people to watch. Probably trail Antiques Roadshow in that market.

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    • Jon Lester says:

      Antiques Roadshow has the little magic sound effect and sparkly graphical wizardry when they reveal the value of the items, though. If the A’s played that every time Josh Donaldson made a difficult play at 3rd the ratings would SOAR.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Yeah, like, bling bling bling, that Josh Donaldson your mom found at a garage sale in Chicago is now worth $150 million over 6 years!

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    • channelclemente says:

      The A’s essentially have no market the dominate in the Bay Area and Norther CA. The NY Times ran an interesting article dealing with baseball markets across the US.

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  2. Mark Appel says:

    Wendy probably shaped the data to make Oakland look bad

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  3. sk says:

    Thanks for this Wendy.

    Just to follow-up on the Blue Jays and their missing numbers. It’s widely reporter in the Canadian press that the Jays TV numbers are the strongest in baseball – averaging around half a million viewers a game. One recent article in the Toronto Sun said a Jays telecast drew 800,000 viewers.

    Is there any way to fact check that with the Canadian equivalent of Nielsen?

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  4. nard says:

    Nielsen ratings are so dumb and misleading.

    They have 579 boxes in Houston. 0/579 tune in to the Astros, so they get a rating of 0.0. That sample size would be meaningless in any other application, but for some reason people still put stock in Neilsen ratings.

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    • kdm628496 says:

      you should do some research on sample sizes necessary for surveys. 579 does a lot better at sampling than you’d think.

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      • nard says:

        Care to enlighten? 579 seems like a poor sample size considering the Houston metro area has a population over 6 million and an overall market far greater than that.

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        • Anon21 says:

          Basically, past a certain sample size it doesn’t really matter how large the population you’re measuring is. 579 should give you statistically valid conclusions even if you’re looking at a market size of 60 million.

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        • nard says:

          Hmm. Still seems like a small sample.

          That said, there are additional problems with Nielsen ratings. There is bias in terms of the population segment that receives them and sometimes users don’t even have them turned on. They’re just a deeply flawed metric of media influence.

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        • Sam says:

          If you study statistics, you find that a random sample of only in the low hundreds generally produces accurate results at a confidence rate of about 95% within +/- 1-3 percentage points.

          Key point there is random. Randomness is unintuitively wonderful

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        • Jim Price says:

          I think this size of sample is not unusual for polling data like the type used for poltical races. Of course the same errors can occur; the difficulty isn’t the sample size so much as it is in getting a “representative” sample.

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      • jfree says:

        Dirty little secret about the Nielsen/Arbitron boxes:

        Many of them are in ‘idle’ households. Whether it is renters who moved. Or people who disconnected them. And they aren’t really randomly placed anyway. Basically the demographics of those who agree to have a monitor in their household are similar to households who want to be on reality shows and/or who don’t try to avoid jury duty.

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  5. Theo says:

    The Dodgers have seen such a shocking plummet I wonder if that is a mistake.

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  6. JKB says:

    So 5% of the Rays market are watching in 2014. That ranks the Rays as the 8th most engaged fan base in the list above.

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  7. Iron says:

    That 8.35 billion dollar Dodgers contract comes out to $208,000 per viewing household over 25 years at that rate. That’s quite a cable bill.

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  8. Iron says:

    I’m just thinking about Time Warner’s interests in the Dodgers deal. They currently have a monopoly on Dodgers games through SportsNet LA. If Sportsnet LA fails to negotiate with Comcast or the satellite networks, Time Warner’s market share rises. Of course this will bankrupt Sportsnet LA because they can’t possibly meet the Dodger’s contract with only one carrier deal. But there was little chance that $8.35 billion in revenue was ever going to be found to make that deal make sense anyway. That deal has looked smoke and mirrors and numbers that don’t begin to add up from the beginning and moreso at every look.

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  9. srpst23 says:

    Does anyone know what will happen in LA when the TimeWarner/Comcast merger is finalized? I would assume that Comcast Customers would be force fed SportsNet LA once the companies are one.

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  10. Ben Yu says:

    How do you figure the Cubs have a 570K bigger “Households in TV Market” than the White Sox as they’re both Chicago teams and share the same three TV outlets(CSN-Chicago, WGN and WCIU).

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    • Wendy Thurm says:

      My mistake. Fixed now to show Chicago is third largest DMA in the country.

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      • Ben Yu says:

        cool but now you have the last 4 columns incorrect for the White Sox & Phillies. The White Sox don’t average twice as many viewers as the Cubs. I think you need the last 4 columns of White Sox figures with the last 4 columns of the Phillies figures to be correct.

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  11. Steven says:

    Is the Dodgers number a typo or have they really gone from 154,000 to 40,000?

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  12. John says:

    Interesting that the Mets have more viewers than the world champion Red Sox, despite sharing the market with the Yankees.

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    • Jake says:

      Gary, Keith and Ron. Gary, Keith and Ron.

      And Kevin Burkhardt!

      Seriously, who needs a really good team when you get to listen to them every night. It’s a treat.

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      • steve161 says:

        Absolutely right, Gary Keith and Ron. I live in Munich, subscribe to MLB.tv and can watch any game I choose to. A Met telecast is my second choice (after Vin Scully), unless they’re playing a non-contender.

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  13. Chris says:

    Fascinating that the Tigers and Cardinals, while both seeing a decrease in household viewing from midpoint last year, have the highest percentage of households watching at around 7.5%.

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    • Jim Price says:

      Not so much. They are two long standing franchises, solid fan bases, competitive teams, not as many other things happening in those regions to compete with baseball.

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  14. walt526 says:

    Hey Wendy, any chance that you could analyze the Astros-Aiken-Nix situation?

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    • Wendy Thurm says:

      Mike Petriello did a great write up on that yesterday. Are you looking for a legal analysis? I’m going to wait and see what happens at Friday’s deadline.

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  15. Costanza says:

    I think the Padres jump is because they worked out the deal to get the Padres’ RSN into most households. Previously, something like 40% of the region didn’t have access to Padres games on TV.

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  16. bhoov says:

    Great information. But I think Ben Yu is right. the Phillies and White Sox have been flipped. The 2013 article says the white sox were down 40K in 2013 from 73K in 2012. Those numbers exactly match your Phillies line.

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  17. Hurtlocker says:

    What about the MLB package you can buy from various TV systems?? I watch many games through the MLB package, but focus on the Giants even though I don’t live in the SF area.

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  18. Wil says:

    To bad they can’t count MLB.tv subscriber data. Most probably watch one team predominantly with their sub.

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    • steve161 says:

      As noted previously, I choose to watch a game on MLB.tv based on the announcers, not the team. I’m a Cardinal fan, but I hardly ever watch their distinctly mediocre telecasts. I’m probably not typical, admittedly.

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  19. No. 9 says:

    The Nielson measure of “local” is nowhere close to MLB’s Designated Market Areas. There are lots of Reds fans in Louisville who watch on Fox Sports Ohio. Ther are lots of Cardinals fans in Des Moines who watch on Fox Sports Midwest. Trying to measure “fan engagement” while not considering the extent of actual DMA is grossly inaccurate.

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  20. TrueNorth says:

    You can find weekly Toronto Blue Jay ratings here.


    Generally when the team is doing well ( as in May), they have 600,000 – 800,000 viewers per game, when slumping the numbers drift down into the 400,000 range. I’d say they average in the 550,000 to 500,000 range over the course of the year. The Jays last year they released viewership numbers was in 2012 and it was in the 550,000 range.

    In Canada the actual number of viewers is tracked, verses households in the U.S. In 2013 the average size American household had 2.54 individuals.

    To translate, and this is generously assuming every single individual in a US household is watching the game, divide 550,000 by 2.54 and you get about 216,000 Canadian Blue Jay ” households”.

    As you can see they rival the Yankees in sheer fan TV support.

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    • TtD says:

      If I remember correctly TrueNorth, the Canadian figures are calculated on an assumed 2 people per household basis. The direct comparison in terms of households for Nielsen comparison actually has the Jays in the 275,000 household range average. The Yankees outdo that figure in a successful season, but no other team comes close.

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  21. Peter Litman says:

    As others have noted, the Nielsen DMA for the home team’s city is one measure, but might not be the best. The analysis is much more complicated if you account for where the team can sell its local rights (e.g., the Red Sox can sell to part of CT, the NY teams to other parts — and those parts are likely to split DMAs, for example, Hartford-New Haven). The difference between MLB market and home city DMA is unlikely to be evenly spread across all the clubs.

    The prior year DMA TVHH counts are not hard to find and there have definitely been some shifts. Wendy’s analysis would be more fair if done with rating points (average HHs viewing/TVHHs x 100) and that’s much simpler to model.

    Here’s 2013

    and here’s 2012

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  22. BurleighGrimes says:

    Super interesting!

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  23. TrueNorth says:

    Another way to look at this issue is number of subs per RSN.

    Advertising revenue derived from number of TV viewers is only one small slice of the pie.

    The big money comes from the number of paid subscribers a regional sports network can generate through its cable distribution.

    This is the play that the Time Warner and the Dodgers are attempting.

    If Time Warner achieves the local market saturation in the LA basin that it desires, your taking 300 million in revenue alone.

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  24. Reade King says:

    Wendy, a question:

    I live in Medford, OR, which is its own DMA under Nielsen. I have access to watch the A’s (and I do, nearly every game), because, believe it or not, Medford is defined by MLB as being part of three teams’ television rights areas: A’s, Giants and Mariners.

    Am I being “counted” (via Nielsen’s proxy viewers) in those roughly 33K watchers? Is a viewer in Redding or Sacramento,or one in Stockton, CA (all are outside the SF-O DMA)? Or are the viewers within the SF-O DMA the only ones being counted?

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  25. airfigaro says:

    Percentage of market per numbers listed above:

    1. Tigers – 7.54%
    2. Cardinals – 7.45%
    3. Reds – 6.40%
    4. Pirates – 6.35%
    5. Indians – 6.20%
    6. Brewers – 5.89%
    7. Red Sox – 5.26%
    8. Rays – 4.87%
    9. Giants – 4.13%
    10. Twins – 3.72%
    11. Yankees – 3.06%
    12. Padres – 2.96%
    13. Braves – 2.82%
    14. Rangers – 2.67%
    15. Nationals – 1.91%
    16. Mets – 1.85%
    17. Marlins – 1.62%
    18. Cubs – 1.47%
    19. Angels – 1.41%
    20. White Sox – 1.39%
    21. A’s – 1.31%
    22. Dodgers – 0.71%
    23. Astros – 0.39%
    24. Phillies – n/a
    25. D’backs – n/a
    26. Mariners – n/a
    27. Rockies – n/a
    28. Orioles – n/a
    29. Royals – n/a

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  26. Francis says:

    Top 3 sports events in Canadafor saturday, june 6, 2015

    # 1 Blackhawks at the Lightning (NHL)
    1,900,000 total viewers

    # 2 Canada vs. China (FIFA)
    1,670,000 total viewers

    #3 Astros at the Blue Jays (MLB)

    ratings are nationwide Jays TV market is the entirecountry under MLB jurisdiction rules


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