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What to do about MLB’s falling post-season TV ratings

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How can baseball get more eyeballs?

World Series - St Louis Cardinals v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The World Series has concluded, and while some baseball hardcore fans like you may have tuned in (did you?), a vast majority of Americans did not. The average ratings for the Red Sox/Dodgers matchup was down 10% from last year’s series, with Game 1 getting the fourth-lowest ratings for any series opener and an average of just 14.3 million viewers tuning in for each game. This comes despite the Dodgers playing in the second-biggest media market in America, and the Red Sox being one of the best draws in baseball.

Baseball ratings for the World Series have been falling for decades. When George Brett squared off against Mike Schmidt in the 1980 World Series between Kansas City and Philadelphia, an average of over 42 million Americans tuned in for each game. A decade later, that number was down to 30 million to watch the Reds and Athletics in the 1990 series. A decade after that, just 18 million viewers tuned in to watch the Subway Series between the Yankees and Mets in 2000. When the Royals defeated the Mets in 2015, an average of just 14.5 million viewers tuned in.

A lot of this is attributable to the fact that there is just way more competition on the ol’ boob tube than there used to be. In 1980 there were just three big broadcast channels and just 22% of households had cable. Now, over 75% of homes have cable, and viewers also have a wealth of streaming options on Netflix, Amazon, and Youtube, among others. In 1980, more than 83 million Americans tuned in to find out who shot J.R. on Dallas, a show that regularly drew 27 million viewers (when there were far fewer households than there are now). The highest-rated scripted program last year was the season premiere of The Big Bang Theory, drawing 17 million viewers.

But sports have held up pretty well over the years, baseball notwithstanding. Here are the number of viewers (on average) for the championship series for Major League Baseball and the NBA, compared to the championship game for college basketball and college football (which includes the Bowl Coalition/Alliance Championship from 1992-1997 which did not have participation from the Big Ten and Pac Ten, and the BCS Championship from 1998 to 2013).

Ratings for college football have held steady ever since the NCAA instituted a championship game, helped perhaps by improvements to determining the participants along the years. The ratings have taken a dip when a blowout is expected (usually involving Alabama), but otherwise have stayed strong. The NBA’s championship ratings also seem to dependent heavily on matchups, with people tuning in to see Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but tuning out to see Tim Duncan’s Spurs. Overall they’re generally down a bit, but still comparable to their 80s numbers, and up quite a bit from the early 2000s. College basketball has suffered a bit of a decline, although not as much as baseball.

So why are baseball post-season ratings down so much? Let’s go over a few of the main culprits.

Longer, slower games

Every single game of the 2018 World Series took at least three hours, with two of the nine-innings games each taking nearly four hours to play (let’s not even talk about the 18-inning, seven-hour affair). By contrast, not a single game of the 1985 World Series took as long as three hours to play, and Game 4 was played in a crisp 2 hours and 19 minutes.

We all know games are longer now. The number of pitches has gone up. In 1988, the average team threw 134.8 pitches-per-game. This last season it was 148.3. Also consider that the pace has slowed down, with the time between pitches going from 21 seconds between pitches a decade ago to 24 seconds last year.

MLB should probably consider reducing the time between innings now that broadcasts can sneak in quick ads between pitches, and before I make my next point, a word from Geico. Also, baseball could be more pro-active in reducing the amount of “standin’ around doin’ nuthin’” time between pitches through a pitch clock. But baseball isn’t the only one experiencing longer games, both college football and the NFL have seen games take longer, yet their ratings remain strong. If baseball did pick up the pace, it would take years for them to overcome their rep as a sports covered in molasses, but it may be a start.

Late start times

Many fans, particularly on the East Coast, lament that the games start at 8:30 Eastern Time, so that they’re still in the prime time window. Often times, “won’t someone think of the children” is the argument, as kids have to be in bed by the third or fourth inning.

The first World Series game I ever watched was when the Royals took on the Cardinals in 1985. That game started at 8:30 Eastern Time. So did Game 1 of the 1986 Series. And the 1987 Series. And every year that I checked until the work stoppage in 1994.

I know some fans remember skipping school to watch day World Series games back in the 1950s, but the fact is in my lifetime, games have always started just before bedtime for kids on the eastern seaboard. The NBA, college football, and college basketball all have similar start times for their championship games (Michigan/Villanova tipped off at 9:20 Eastern Time back in March, and Alabama won the college football national title in January just after midnight). Let’s also consider that more than half the country lives outside the Eastern Time Zone, so these start times really aren’t an issue at all for most. Maybe baseball needs to start earlier to accommodate longer games, but this probably isn’t the cause of declining ratings.

Lack of compelling matchups

The Red Sox won 108 games and just steamrolled through the post-season en route to their fourth championship in 15 years. The series with dominant teams have been among the lowest-rated, historically. The lowest-rated series of the 80s was when the 99-win Athletics led by the Bash Brothers swept the Giants. The lowest-rated series of the next decade was when the 114-win Yankees swept the over-matched Padres in 1998. Fans tend to tune in only if there is drama or a compelling narrative. They don’t want to see the inevitable coronation of a giant.

However the Red Sox were just slight favorites going into this series, and the outcome was very much in doubt. There are super-teams and tankers this year, but that just means there are lots of great teams that could have won a championship this year, which should provide for a compelling narrative. Baseball has gotten bumps in ratings for certain matchups - the Yankees winning it in 2009 was a good draw, and the Cubs/Indians matchup was a great ratings boost in 2016. But you can’t count on matchups every year, and even some draws will become stale, like the Red Sox who were a ratings bonanza in 2004 but have become old hat by 2018.

Another Yankees pennant could boost ratings since it has been over a decade since they have played in the Fall Classic. But baseball has kinda milked the marquee teams dry for ratings, and there aren’t too many clubs anymore that can be national draws. What baseball probably needs is a marquee player worth tuning in for, like the 1980 Series that pitted household names Mike Schmidt against George Brett. But baseball is facing a superstar shortfall right now, which is a whole other problem.

Times have just changed, man

Much of the discussion on sagging baseball ratings has focused on why ratings are down now, but maybe instead the question should be, “why did so many people tune in to watch baseball before?” For a long time, baseball was truly America’s Pastime. If you grew up in the 1950s and 60s, college sports was popular, but regional, pro-football was still trying to gain a foothold, the NBA and NHL were afterthoughts, and baseball was king.

Consider that much of the 42 million audience to watch the 1980 World Series grew up in baseball’s “Golden Age” in the 1950s. Much less of that audience remains, and they have not been replaced by as many newer fans (perhaps those late World Series start times in the 1980s DID have an impact, just not for 30 years).

Now baseball has clearly taken a backseat to football both the NFL and college game. MLB has to compete for sports eyeballs with the NBA, NHL, and college basketball, along with sports that have reached new popularity like auto racing, “extreme sports”, mixed martial arts, and international soccer. At my kid’s school, you’re more likely to find fans of Ronaldo or Conor McGregor than Mike Trout.

I’m not sure baseball can ever reclaim the spot in the national consciousness it once did. Our culture is more fragmented than ever, segmented into niche audiences, microtargeted for our unique tastes.

Baseball ratings are down, but relatively speaking, the World Series is still one of the most-watched television programs. There isn’t an urgent problem here - FOX still paid a LOT of money to baseball despite over a decade worth of declining ratings. But baseball really needs to make sure they don’t lose the audience they already have. This is part of why any drastic changes to the game in a vain effort to add audience is likely to be doomed - it will alienate the base. But tinkering with the game, quickening the pace, cultivating more marquee teams, marketing the stars of the game, could certainly help.