Brown: What do low TV ratings really mean for baseball and its fans?

From Maury Brown at Baseball Prospectus on October 30, 2012:

As the 2012 World Series goes, unless you’re a Giants fan, you might say it could have been better. A competitive series is always better than one that isn’t, and this one surely wasn’t. It was the first sweep since the 2007 World Series, in which the Red Sox topped the Rockies. A four-game sweep that saw the Giants (the Tigers had a team batting average of .159) trounce the Tigers had some negative effects that baseball would have probably liked to avoid. Here are the details.

2012 World Series: Lowest-Rated. Ever.
As a baseball fan, you’re liable to say, “I don’t care.” However, there are pundits out there that will (yet again) say baseball is a dying sport. Now that the series is over, the ratings numbers are in, and the 2012 World Series will go down in history as the lowest rated, ever. According to Nielsen Media Research, FOX averaged a 7.6 rating and 12 shares over the series. Prior to the 2012 World Series, the lowest-rated was the 2008 series between the Phillies and Rays, which had an 8.4 rating average over five games. Through four games last year, Fox was averaging a 9.3 overnight.


Those who will chime in point to the ratings numbers from “the good old days” and say baseball is no longer relevant are not taking a host of factors into account. In looking back to 1968, the first year that Nielsen tracked the World Series, the Tigers and Cardinals on NBC pulled a 22.8 ratings average with a 57 share. In 1973, the first year that Nielsen tracked the average number of households tuning in and the average number of viewers, the World Series between the A’s and Mets had a 30.7 rating average with a 57 share. It averaged 20.32 million households and 34.75 million viewers. Plainly put, that was then, this is now.

At the time those impressive numbers came out, America had the “Big Three” networks (ABC, NBC, and CBS) on the dial. If you were lucky, you had PBS and maybe a UHF channel or two. Now, the likes of DirecTV can give viewers well over 500 channels to select from. There was also no internet. No mobile technology. No gaming platforms. There is also chaotic scheduling. The NFL was not as dominant as it is now, the NBA was not the league that it is now, and the NHL only had CBS showing parts of the Stanley Cup Finals (NBC began showing regular-season hockey in 1972).

All this isn’t to be an apologist for MLB’s ratings. They have not been good as of late, but if the networks are the ones most interested in how the numbers shake out, then FOX seems to be spinning the fact that winning the ratings battle for a given day in the key 18-29 demo makes them happy. The difficult matter is whether using ratings numbers to determine baseball’s popularity is going to be sound. There are a host of competing elements for the viewer’s time, so using historical numbers from the Halcion days, when the nation was transfixed to the television for the World Series, are long gone. To those that point to the gaudy NFL numbers, it’s true that football has surpassed MLB in terms of the number of viewers per game. This is also indicative of changes to society. Football plays against a clock, which means fans can know not only when a game starts, but pretty much when it will end. The NFL’s “winner takes all” single-game format tells you society doesn’t make the effort to watch multi-game series the way they used to.

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Originally published: October 30, 2012. Last Updated: October 30, 2012.