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Here’s why World Series TV ratings don’t matter

Baseball isn’t dying, you guys.

Al Yellon

Much has been made of the fact that some of the TV viewership numbers for the recently-concluded World Series between the Rangers and Diamondbacks were fairly low.

And then you’ll hear the old, tired tropes, like: “Baseball’s demographic is aging,” and “No one wants to see these teams, bring back the Yankees and Dodgers,” and “This playoff structure sucks,” and the most tired one of all:

“Baseball is dying, you guys.”

It’s not. While baseball does have issues that it needs to address, it most certainly is not “dying.” Rule changes this year helped speed up the pace of games and make them more exciting and as a result, attendance was up 9.6 percent, to its highest level since 2017 — this despite many ticket prices being higher.

Meanwhile, local TV ratings were up:

17 teams were up in 2023, one was flat, and 11 were down. Data for the Toronto Blue Jays, whose games are available across Canada, was not available.

Per the Sports Business Journal, nine teams saw their local viewership increase by at least 25% in 2023. Of those nine, six made the playoffs and two were only eliminated from the playoff race in the final week of the season.

That includes the Cubs, whose ratings on Marquee Sports Network were up 34 percent in 2023.

Instead of taking the negative headlines as gospel, consider this:

World Series Game 5? “Ranks as the most-watched telecast of the day on any network.”

That’s the takeaway you should have from Game 5. TV viewing is so fragmented these days, between what’s left of linear TV and the broadcast networks and streaming. Having 11.6 million viewers for any show is really, really good.

It used to be that network TV was “appointment viewing.” Popular shows regularly got 30 million or 40 million viewers. That just doesn’t happen anymore. This link shows that the top-rated network TV shows for this TV season get, on average... about four million viewers. And as you can see here, basically all of the top-rated individual shows are NFL games.

Okay, granted and stipulated, the NFL is more popular on TV than MLB. That’s been the case for quite some time. Largely, this is because up until the last couple of years, NFL games have been almost exclusively on over-the-air broadcast TV, with some on cable (mainly ESPN). With some NFL games migrating to streaming (mainly Amazon), that could change going forward. But all NFL games are sold on a national basis, while MLB games, outside of postseason contests, are sold regionally.

This is where MLB has made a major mistake, in my view. One of the reasons MLB changed to the balanced schedule, where every team plays every other team each season, was to try to make baseball a more “national” sport. Presumably, exposing all of the sport’s stars in every market would help this along.

The problem with this is that there just isn’t enough of that exposure. Divisional games were reduced and interleague games increased, but fans are still seeing players from the other league only once every two years. This is, incidentally, not an argument for increasing that exposure; as you know, I’m not a fan of the balanced schedule. By its very nature — 162 games, a long season — baseball really needs to be a regional sport. Theoretically, this could drive more interest in the postseason, which is where MLB makes a huge chunk of money.

That didn’t work out this year — and I don’t think it was because of the teams involved in the World Series. Apart from a handful of LCS games, there wasn’t much compelling baseball played this October, and that doesn’t drive TV ratings. Neither did the World Series ending in just five games. A seven-game World Series between the Rangers and Diamondbacks likely would have brought more TV viewers — a Game 7 almost always does.

Baseball, as noted in Fox’s tweet, is still doing well in the overall TV market, which is much more fractured than it was in the days when TV network executives didn’t want to have day games if the 1984 Cubs had made the World Series, because back then World Series ratings mattered.

Those ratings don’t matter now. Baseball is still doing just fine. TV-wise, what matters for the sport is the Bally Sports bankruptcy and what that might mean to local team revenues going forward, and here’s some news about that issue that broke via the New York Post just yesterday:

Sinclair Broadcasting Group wants to pay pennies on the dollar to regain control of a nationwide chain of regional sports networks — which it had paid $10.6 billion to acquire four years ago only to see it fall into bankruptcy this spring, The Post has learned.

Sinclair, which owns 185 television stations in 86 markets, has offered roughly $850 million in partnership with Bally’s owner Soo Kim to regain control of its bankrupt subsidiary, Diamond Sports Group, which airs local games on TV under the Bally Sports brand and owns the rights to 39 teams across MLB, the NBA and NHL, sources said.

Twelve of those remaining teams on Bally are MLB teams.

This proposal doesn’t seem like a great idea, nor is it likely to happen. The local MLB TV landscape is changing rapidly and I’ll continue to cover that here.

But World Series TV ratings? Nothing to see here, move on.