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.