As scoring falls off and competition ramps up, World Series ratings suffer

Red Sox-Cardinals on pace to post the third-worst average audience in MLB's prime-time era

  • Cardinals fan Hanks Edwards, left, and Red Sox fan Yianni Georgacaos before Game 5 in St. Louis.
Cardinals fan Hanks Edwards, left, and Red Sox fan Yianni Georgacaos… (H. Darr Beiser, USA Today…)
October 29, 2013|Peter Schmuck

By any measure, the 2013 World Series should be a big television draw. The Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals are historic franchises with terrific national followings, and they're attractive teams with great pitching and plenty of interesting storylines.

So why is this Fall Classic getting a relative ho-hum reaction from baseball fans, who are delivering another series of mediocre overnight TV ratings and appear to be spending more time at the water cooler actually drinking water than talking baseball?

This is not a new phenomenon. National TV viewership of the World Series took a dramatic fall in 2005 and reached an all-time low last October. The ratings have edged up some over the first five games this year, helped by a couple of crazy finishes over the weekend, but this Series still is on pace to post the third-worst average audience since Major League Baseball's postseason moved to prime time.

There are a number of variables you have to consider if you're trying to make sense of that. The baseball postseason now competes with pro football three nights a week instead of one. The NFL kicked off Sunday Night Football on NBC in 2006 and recently expanded its Thursday Night Football schedule to 13 weeks, which, along with an expanded prime-time college schedule, has to explain some fragmentation of the sports viewership.

MLB magnified that with the decision to go to a one-weekend World Series format in 2007, starting on a Wednesday (instead of a Saturday) and putting Game 5 in direct competition with Monday Night Football.

Of course, ratings are also driven by the size of the TV markets that take baseball's biggest stage, but that appears to be only a factor in the modest variability of the recent numbers. The proof of that may be found in the last World Series before the big 2005 ratings drop-off, which matched up the same two teams vying for the world championship this year and which drew nearly twice the average number of viewers per game.

It forces us to consider what was going on back then that is not going on now. The 2005 season was the second year of mandatory steroid testing and featured the first suspension of a superstar player (Rafael Palmeiro) for testing positive for an illegal performance-enhancing drug.

Baseball has spent every year since grappling with a PED problem that will not go away, creating an interesting and potentially controversial set of questions about the decline in interest in the baseball postseason.

Is it because fans became disenchanted with the drumbeat of tawdry steroid revelations that soiled the game and many of its biggest stars? Or is it because a nation of TV viewers became accustomed to the high-scoring games and big home run totals of the pre-testing steroid era and just can't get excited about old-school baseball?

The sad truth may be that the steroid era simply spoiled the casual baseball fan, which would explain in part why ballpark attendance figures have remained relatively constant since the last expansion year (1997) while postseason TV ratings have plummeted since the start of mandatory PED testing.

Maybe the 2004 World Series ratings were modestly higher than the average at the time because the Red Sox were about to win their first world title in 86 years, but it's hard to dispute the notion that the game was being played at a very different speed.

Over 34 games in the 2004 postseason, the teams involved scored a total of 353 runs and an average of 5.2 runs per team per game. In 37 postseason games so far this year, the teams involved have scored a total of 262 runs and an average of just 3.5 runs per team per game.

Think about that for a minute. The playoff teams of 2004 outscored the playoff teams of 2013, on average, by a margin of 47 percent. It's probably fair to say that is statistically significant. If you want to take the comparison a step further, consider that the playoff teams of 2004 hit 100 home runs in 34 postseason games and an average of 2.9 per game. This year, there have been 52 homers in the first 37 games, or 1.4 per game.

Kind of reminds you of that ubiquitous AT&T commercial in which the guy asks the kids around the kindergarten-sized table whether more is better than less.

It's not complicated.

peter.schmuck@baltsun.com

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog, and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" on Fridays at 9 a.m. on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

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