Monday, October 24th, 2011...11:42 pm

MLB’s Television Ratings, or Is Baseball’s Audience Too Old?

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By Sam Mann

I promised you a post about MLB’s TV ratings, and I shall deliver. I find tonight to be an extremely opportune time to discuss, because tonight’s numbers will be the ultimate test. Let me explain. It is undeniable that baseball ratings have been decreasing over recent years. It is similarly undeniable that the NFL owns the ratings game and routinely crushes the other sports that go against it. NFL football is so popular, they say, that they could put any two teams on and get superior ratings. Well, tonight we get to test that theory. As we speak, FOX is running Game 5 of what has been a pretty entertaining World Series, while ESPN is carrying Monday Night Football between Baltimore, a well above-average team, and Jacksonville, a well below-average team from such a terrible market that they are the “favorites” to be the first NFL team to move to Los Angeles when the new stadium is built. Basically, if Monday Night Football beats the World Series, especially by a large number, then the pundits are right and the NFL literally can throw out anything on the field and print money. (Although last night’s Game 4 did beat Sunday Night Football on NBC, which may or may not have had anything to do with the 0-7 Colts losing by 55 points. Still, tonight is an interesting test of the same theory)

As I alluded to earlier, baseball’s ratings, particularly for the World Series, have been in a gradual decline for most of the last decade. With the exception of the 2009 World Series, a matchup of huge media markets (defending World Series Champions Philadelphia against the vaunted New York Yankees) ratings for the World Series have been in perpetual decline. According to a Sporting News article running today on this exact subject, last year was the lowest rating World Series ever, and Game 1 of this year’s World Series was down from last year, drawing just 14.2 million viewers (somewhere in the 9.0 ratings range). Fortunately, the series has been close, so total viewership will surpass last year’s Series, but it is still down historically. Even last night, when MLB beat the NFL, the game only rated a 10.7. To put that in context, take a look at Baseball Almanac’s ratings chart:

Year / Series Television Network Rating Share Viewers
World Series TV Ratings
2000 FOX 12.4 21

18,081,000

2001 FOX 15.7 26

24,528,000

2002 FOX 11.9 20

19,261,000

2003 FOX 12.8 22

20,143,000

2004 FOX 15.8 26

25,390,000

2005 FOX 11.1 19

17,162,000

2006 FOX 10.1 17

15,812,000

2007 FOX 10.6 18

17,123,000

2008 FOX

8.4

14

13,635,000

2009 FOX  11.7 19
2010 FOX   8.4 14
Year / Series Television Network Rating Share Viewers

Compare that with 1995, the year after the strike (19.5), 1991 (24.0), 1985 (25.3), 1980 (32.8), etc. Even the bumps, if we can call them that, are pretty explainable. 2009, see above. 2004, the Red Sox miracle run to their first title since 1918. 2001, the first World Series after 9/11, with New York having homefield advantage. Basically, when the Big Boys aren’t front and center, or where there isn’t a miraculous occurrence, it has been bad news for baseball and its television partners.

However, the concerning part is not that overall viewership has decreased, because television has become more fractured and ratings across the board have been decreasing (with the exception of the NFL of course, where last year’s Super Bowl was the second-highest rated program ever). The truly concerning part is the average age of the baseball audience. According to the Twitter feed @tvsportsratings (you bet I’m quoting Twitter, tell them to add a chapter to the next edition of the Bluebook), ratings among males age 18-49 are on pace to be among the lowest ever. The median age of the audience is likely to be in the mid-50s. The NBA Finals median age was 40. As any good Advertising 101 student could tell you, everyone wants to capture that 18-49 male demographic, and baseball isn’t doing it. Their audience is, in a word, way too old. Adding insult to injury is that the Big Bang Theory, a show on CBS about nerdy scientists, rated higher among the prized demographic than Game 2, where Texas won 2-1 in an extremely well-played, dramatic game. Don’t get me wrong, the show is okay, but it shouldn’t be rating higher than the WORLD SERIES!

This all matters for two reasons: 1) the next national television agreement; and 2) the effects of ratings on collective bargaining and competitive balance. As you know if you’ve followed this blog at all, television ratings drive sports these days. College Football is basically destroying tradition, in a sport where they value tradition maybe more than any other, purely for more lucrative television deals. College Basketball recently negotiated an $11 billion dollar television deal, expanding the tournament an extra round to help do so. And most importantly, the NFL structures their salary cap and their revenue sharing system on the basis of their huge national television contracts. Known for its parity, the NFL crowned the Green Bay Packers as their 2011 Champions. Green Bay is of course the home to a media market ranked somewhere between #71-#187, depending on methodology. Either way, really small. As a comparison, the smallest MLB market, Milwaukee, rated #35 & #33 on the two lists. Again, media deals drive sports, and ratings are a primary factor in negotiating these deals.

The real kicker of this whole thing, as alluded to with the NFL, is that the national television contracts are distributed evenly among MLB teams. Local radio and television deals are not, which is part of the reason why the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, et al bring in so much more revenue than other terms. The bigger the national deal, the smaller the net effect of those big market advantages. In theory, that would create more competitive balance and more opportunities for small market teams to invest in the draft, scouting, retain their own players, etc. The ratings equation matters for collective bargaining as well. As the NBA is so clearly showing us, when revenue streams start to decrease, labor strife seems to follow. Baseball’s deal runs out in December, and although all reports seem positive, the last thing either party needs is to deal with a week’s worth of stories about how the ratings declining means the future of the sport is in doubt.

For the record, I don’t think the future of baseball is in peril, despite the television ratings. Attendance was up (modestly, but still) and many teams have favorable local media deals. Channeling the NBA again, it does not seem like baseball faces the same attendance, salary structure (surprisingly enough) and player issues. (As I alluded to in my last post, the NBA Players Association has yet to grasp the true economic situation the league faces. In my opinion, baseball is much healthier; partially because the arbitration/player control system artificially depresses salaries for young players and partially because baseball’s owners have been far more fiscally responsible).

Still, it would behoove MLB for the ratings of this World Series to be better than past years. That along with a peaceful Collective Bargaining Agreement ought to create serious momentum for the sport moving forward. Now if we can just figure out how to get Phillies-Yankees in the Series again…

Update: According to CNBC Sports Business Expert Darren Rovell, the World Series did in fact have a higher overnight rating than Monday Night Football. However, it was also the lowest rated Game 5 in World Series History.

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