Ratings slip, but Series still has grip



If a classic World Series game is played in Houston, but no one in New York is watching, does that mean it wasn't really a classic?

It was a question hanging in the air as the Houston Astros played the Chicago White Sox - a series that featured tight games, fresh story lines and two of the country's largest cities - and drew some of the poorest television ratings in the history of the Fall Classic.

"You've got terrific teams, you've got great players, great stories, but it's just not enough to capture that national interest," Bob Gutkowski, a sports television consultant and former president of Madison Square Garden, said before last night's fourth and final game.

That said, television experts argued the series remained a desirable property because it was a guaranteed draw in an increasingly fragmented television landscape.

"Just because it's not generating the ratings it used to doesn't mean it's not generating great ratings in the current climate," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports marketing consultant.

The first two games averaged a 10.3 rating and 16 million viewers, slightly below the 10.7 average earned by the same games in the 2002 Anaheim Angels-San Francisco Giants series, the lowest-rated in history, and 30 percent below the average for last year's Boston Red Sox-St. Louis Cardinals series.

Game 1 was the least-watched World Series game since a 1971 contest between the Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates that was played on a Thursday afternoon.

The depressed numbers have some pundits saying a World Series without the New York Yankees or Red Sox is doomed. Television columnist Michael Hiestand of USA Today said the rating "raises questions about the breadth of Major League Baseball's national TV appeal."

That may be an overstatement, marketing experts said, but the Yankees, Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers have familiar histories for which casual fans have an affinity.

"Neither Houston nor Chicago has any meaningful national following," Ganis said. "And in baseball, there are only a few clubs that do."

Joe Sheehan, a columnist for Baseballprospectus.com, said the ratings reflected a series without such story lines as the "Curse of the Bambino" or big stars like Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter.

"You hook the casual fans with stories that don't have a lot to do with baseball," he said. "All the stories this year are baseball stories."

Given those factors, Fox spokesman Lou D'Ermilio said any panic about the ratings is premature.

"If you simply compare the numbers to last year, then the decline is a little more than we expected," he said. "But the buzz around the Red Sox last year was a buzz that transcended the sports pages. It drew in non-traditional television viewers."

Baseball officials are sensitive to suggestions that the lower ratings indicate any broader dip in popularity. They note that the league has set overall attendance records two years in a row, that regional cable ratings remain strong and that the Series still draws larger audiences than the NBA Finals and NASCAR and performs well in its time slots.

"The good news for us is that the World Series continues to beat the competition," said Chris Tully, senior vice president for broadcasting for Major League Baseball.

The broader reality, television experts agree, is that few entertainment programs can match the best ratings of 20 and 30 years ago. People simply have too many choices.

"I used to sell television at NBC in the '70s, and our absolute lowest-rated program would be among the highest-rated today," Gutkowski said. "It just gets harder and harder to drive a big number."

Television and marketing experts agree that the World Series remains a valuable property because it's one of the few events that guarantees a sizable audience no matter who's playing.

"I still think it's a cachet event," Gutkowski said. "It always will be, though you might have your ups and downs from year to year. This time of year, it's still as good a product as you're going to get."

On the surface, this Series seemed to have plenty going for it.

The White Sox were trying to end an 88-year championship drought, longer than the one the Red Sox ended to so much acclaim last year. And for history buffs, the 1919 Black Sox scandal seems a more sordid back story than the simple sale of Babe Ruth.

The Astros, meanwhile, were in their first World Series after a string of disappointing playoff losses. The team has possibly the best pitcher of all time in Roger Clemens and one of the game's best young starters in Roy Oswalt.

The games were close, back-and-forth affairs.

And the cities certainly aren't Podunk. Chicago and Houston are the third- and 10th-largest television markets in the country, respectively.

Despite Houston's size, television people didn't view it as a town that can drive a high national rating, Gutkowski said. Chicago is that kind of city, but the White Sox are its second team, he added.

Ganis said ratings and interest in Chicago are strong, but the Series suffers whenever a team from either coast isn't involved.

"That's just the geographical reality in sports," he said.

Market size "certainly can help," D'Ermilio said, "but it's not the clear defining factor for a highly-rated Series." The 2000 and 2003 Series, both featuring the Yankees, were among the lowest-rated in history, he noted.

Some blame the ratings on late start times. But baseball really has no good option. If it starts games in the late afternoon East Coast time, it writes off huge viewership on the West Coast.

"The games are slotted to maximize the audience," D'Ermilio said, noting that ratings actually spiked at 11 p.m. and midnight on Tuesday.


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