National TV Ratings for World Series Tell Only Part of the Story

First, the national TV ratings for the World Series were released. The lowest in history! Lower than the last time the San Francisco Giants played in the World Series! Then came the commentary about how boring the series was — how it lacked national stars, how the ratings show interest in baseball is dying.

Stop. Baseball is alive and well. It’s simply not consumed on a national level and hasn’t been for some time.

Fox Sports is Major League Baseball’s most visible broadcast partner. Under its existing contract with MLB — which will expire at the end of the 2013 season — Fox broadcasts a Game of the Week each Saturday during the egular baseball season. But the Game of the Week is really several games of the week, with different regional broadcasts available in different media markets. And if the game shown in your area isn’t the game you want to watch, you’re out of luck, as Fox blacks out the broadcast of all other games other than the one it is showing in your area. As a result, baseball fans are watching different games on Saturday afternoons, and not necessarily games they want to  watch. That’s a balkanized broadcast structure, not a national one.

ESPN and TBS also have national broadcast rights under the contracts in place through 2013. ESPN Sunday Night Baseball is a true national broadcast, in the sense that there is one game, played at a special time (8 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on Sunday nights). If you want to watch baseball on Sunday night, you watch Sunday Night Baseball on ESPN. But in some sense, Sunday Night Baseball isn’t national because a majority of the games shown throughout the season feature teams from the big media markets: Yankees, Mets, Red Sox, Phillies, Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, Cubs and White Sox. That might make sense for television ratings on a game-by-game basis, but it has long-term consequences when big market teams don’t make the postseason.

Baseball fans who rely on Fox, ESPN and, to some extent, TBS for out-of-market games see few games involving teams from the smaller media markets. That means fewer opportunities to build an interest in those teams and their players. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then, when the World Series pits a team from San Francisco against a team from Detroit, national TV ratings will suffer.

According to Nielsen, an average of 12.7 million viewers watched the 2012 World Series — the lowest ratings ever for the event. Last year’s World Series — the seven-game thriller between the Cardinals and Rangers — averaged 16.6 million viewers. In 2010, when the Giants defeated the Rangers for the first World Series Championship in San Francisco franchise history, the average viewership per game was 14.2 million. In 2009, when the Yankees defeated the Phillies for the New York’s first championship since 2000, each game drew an average of 20 million viewers.

Since 2000, when Fox gained exclusive rights to broadcast the World Series, only two times has the series averaged more than 21 million viewers: in 2001, when the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees in a seven-game series just weeks after the 9/11 attacks; and in 2004, when the Red Sox played in the World Series for the first time since 1986. Big market teams. Nationally-known stars. Compelling story lines. You get the idea.

Maybe there’s also something to the idea that the manner in which Fox broadcasts the World Series drives viewers away. There’s no doubt a range of opinions on the Joe Buck-Tim McCarver broadcast team. McCarver, in particular, often sounds like he’s missing a step or two, and his folksy, old-fashioned approach can be off-putting, particularly to younger viewers. Then there are the in-game dugout interviews, which have been roundly criticized as a distraction that take away the game’s ebb and flow. And then there are the marketing promotions. And so on. All the bells and whistles — many of which are ancillary to the on-the-field play — slow the game down and detract from the viewer’s experience. If a fan isn’t familiar with the teams, and a game she’s tuned into isn’t close, the Fox broadcast doesn’t do much to keep her interested.

While fewer fans tuned in to this year’s World Series, the ones who did were more engaged than ever. According to a report on mashable.com, there were more than 10 million baseball-related comments across all forms of social media during the postseason. That’s more than double the social media activity for the 2011 postseason.

Putting World Series television ratings aside, there’s plenty to suggest that baseball is doing quite well. Attendance increased slightly across the league in 2012, and increased more than slightly for teams that had surprisingly strong seasons. Many fans want to watch out-of-market games and are willing to pay to do so. As of 2011, there were at least 2.2 million combined subscribers to MLB.tv and MLB AtBat. And Fox, ESPN and TBS just agreed to pay even more for their national TV broadcast rights, with eight-year contracts worth more than $12.4 billion.

If Fox, TBS and ESPN want to improve TV ratings in the postseason, there is plenty they can do to increase fan interest among all teams during the regular season. Among them would be to show more games featuring small-to-middle market teams and to end blackouts during nationally-televised games. And there’s plenty those companies can do in the postseason to bring fans in and keep them interested during the games, namely by focusing on the on-field play and accentuating that play with more personable broadcasters.



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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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Matt K
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Matt K

Just because New York or Boston wasn’t in the series isn’t enough to say that we shouldn’t be surprised at lower ratings. True, San Fransisco is not a big city but the greater Bay Area is probably the 4th or 5th biggest market in the nation. And Detroit is a popular and storied team with plenty of superstars including the AL MVP, a recent Cy Young winner, and the biggest Free Agent acquisition of the year.

Plain and simple: it was a boring series, especially compared to the theatrics of last year.

deadpool
Guest
deadpool

I think the point is still that only a fraction of the nation followed those teams on a regular basis. Neither the team has built a large contingent of fans outside of the local area, big as the local areas may be, and aren’t shown regularly enough to out of market areas to gain the exposure necessary for non-fans to be excited about seeing either team in a WS. 162 games is a long time to forget about Fielder, and Cabrera is an interesting story if you follow baseball, but the fact is he still doesn’t have the notoriety of a Pujols or Hamilton. That may change going forward (as well it should) but its true now. The result is that for those who follow the sport very closely there were interesting story lines, that where all somewhat mitigated by the early demise of better ones. Trout didn’t lead the Angels into the WS, The Cards didn’t capitalize on the ridiculous one game play in, the As couldn’t take Beane to the WS. That leaves some of the storyline watchers and the local fans, because Nationally its really hard to pay attention to teams that you only see play once or twice a year out of 170 some odd days of baseball.

Chris
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Chris

According to Neilsen, SF is in the 6th biggest market – Detroit is the 11th. Both were also represented on ESPN’s Sunday nights this year, fairly often for both if I recall (I should check the schedule, I guess).

I think you’re dead on – it was a boring series, at least for the fringe fan.

Baltar
Guest
Baltar

Can’t speak for Detroit, but SF, my 2nd-favorite team, was very rarely, almost never shown in my area, Cincinnati. If they weren’t one of my favorites, nor an underdog like Oak or Bal, I might not have watched the series myself.
My favorite team, Tampa, now a perennial contender, was on much more, but only because they play the Yankees a lot.
I’m sure many fans who, like myself can’t afford the MLB packages, get discouraged and drop out.

Jason
Guest
Jason

I think its more that the impact of each game isnt determinative of the final result. Each individual game is “low leverage” so to speak until you build toward a game 6 or 7.

If the Super Bowl was a 7 game series its ratings would be similar.

Kiss my GO NATS
Guest
Kiss my GO NATS

I believe it is as I only watch teams I care about.

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