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October 10, 2007

The Ledger Domain

The Ratings Game

by Maury Brown

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The bubbly had to be popping at MLB's New York offices, and at the headquarters of Turner Sports. The gamble to place the Division Series exclusively on cable through Turner's TBS channel had initially paid off handsomely. In the next few days, however, the television execs, Bud Selig and the rest at 245 Park could be faced with a bit of a champagne hangover. With the Yankees being knocked out of the playoffs in a Game Four ALDS loss to the Indians, only the Boston Red Sox remain as a perennial ratings powerhouse. No Yankees/Red Sox drama. No Chicago Cubs, no Wrigley Field, no goat, no curse. Not even a Rally Monkey.

Instead, what we have is relative market parity, with only Boston really having any major national profile. While Phoenix is a large market, it's a recent expansion team, as is Denver. This is great for the sports scenes in those towns, of course, and great for baseball in those cities. MLB loves to trumpet the parity that has come from the introduction of the Wild Card, the increases in total revenues pouring into the clubs, and how these reflect the virtue of the tweaks to the revenue-sharing system. Steady fans of baseball can enjoy the knowledge that teams other than the Yankees and Red Sox have a shot at the postseason.

Baseball's broadcasting partners added some common-sense tweaks to broadcast times when they agreed to a new national network television deal last year. The changes helped spur ratings boosts this year, mostly by way of ESPN and ESPN2, who according to the Sports Business Daily saw a 25 percent increase in ratings over 64 games, compared to 98 games when there were more day game telecasts. ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball also saw an increase of 10 percent from the year before. On the other hand, FOX saw telecasts average a 2.3/6 rating, down 4.2 percent from a 2.4/7 for 18 telecasts in '06, when coverage began in late May, translating to a -4.2 percent decline from the year prior.

The problem is that while parity is great for the regular season, when it comes time for the playoffs to roll around, a slate populated with big-market, well-entrenched, storied franchises is what MLB and the television execs at FOX and TBS want to see. In their first dip into the MLB postseason pool, TBS has seen healthy numbers over the course of Division Series play, which is perhaps surprising, as this is the first time in history that all games were broadcast on cable-there are no over-the-air broadcasts by FOX and to a lesser extent ESPN this year. As of Sunday, TBS had grabbed 5.4 million viewers, compared to 4.5 million last year on ESPN, ESPN2, and FOX, an impressive jump.

Looking at the eight teams that made the playoffs, one can only wonder what the ratings might have been like if the Mets had not collapsed, thus possibly adding more punch with both New York franchises in the mix. However, to add a slight dose of reality to those figures from last season, recall that last year had Mother Nature in the mix, as Game Two of the ALDS between the Yankees and Tigers was rained out. That pulled down the numbers, but let's face it: not by 900,000 viewers.

With the Division Series now in the rearview mirror and this season's LCS lineup of Cleveland, Denver, Phoenix, and Boston on tap, it will be interesting to watch what the viewership numbers will turn out to be. Given that the NLCS is an all-West affair, odds are that interest on the East Coast will be exceptionally low. On Tuesday, MLB released a revised schedule for the LCS that has Games One through Five of FOX's coverage of the ALCS all starting at 7 or 8 p.m. ET. The NLCS times have been shifted with focus on the audience in the Mountain and Pacific Time zones; those games will start at either 8:30 or 10 p.m. ET. Whether these changes help or hinder ratings, only time will tell. The shift for the NLCS means that a conscious gamble is being made that will limit East Coast audiences given the lateness of the start times. The Red Sox being the Red Sox, you can expect that they will pull in good ratings, but you have to believe that TV execs were praying for the Yankees to turn matters around, especially after how the NLCS matchup worked out.

As for the broadcast booth, TBS has had its ups and downs. Cal Ripken is his stately and classy self, which is great for Hall of Fame speeches, but has made for rather drab television. Frank Thomas has been abysmal-he's regurgitated a steady stream of pat analysis that any rookie fan could have come up with, and has looked uncomfortable and out of place. Ripken would be fine in the statesman's role if he had someone to counter him. I might be burned in effigy for this suggestion, but the idea of an Eric Byrnes-type partner might help matters. A little broadcasting yin and yang, if you will.

As for Chip Caray, the man deemed to be TBS' lead broadcaster for the postseason, Richard Sandomir of the NY Times skewered him for a litany of broadcasting gaffes. As an example, Sandomir noted, "[Caray] said the 'Yankees led the world' in home runs this season with 201. He liked saying it so much he said it again. Truth: The Brewers led the majors with 231, followed by the Phillies with 213 and the Reds at 204. The Yankees and Marlins were tied at 201." Oops. [Ed. note: Anyone who had to suffer through Caray's consistently awful years in the Cubs booth knew that this was coming. The Carays' Boy Blunder really needs to stick with hoops, and leave the national pastime be.]

Adding Alyssa Milano into the mix has added a bit of eye-rolling as well. Look, we know that she's a die-hard Dodger fan. We know she blogs. We know she's eye candy. Beyond that, I can only assume that the idea was to help push MLB's sudden interest in cross-promoting her MLB fashion line and draw more twentysomething females to the ballpark. "Remember, if Alyssa does it, it must be cool."

You'd think that these factors might drive fans away, but as mentioned, the numbers don't lie-ratings are up. I'll leave it to others to wonder if Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver have anything to do with how ratings were last year, or if their absence so far is why they're better now. All of this, of course, means little if you're a die hard baseball fan. Your only concern is compelling baseball. Television, of course, will be trying to create compelling story lines for the average sports fan that only heeds MLB's call when the postseason arrives; not an easy feat when you're talking the likes of Troy Tulowitzki, Yorvit Torrealba, Chris Snyder, or Conor Jackson in the NLCS.

Much was made last year about how MLB wasn't really all that popular due to the abysmal ratings in the postseason. What baseball needs is to catch a clue and realize that there is more to itself than just the Red Sox and Yankees, and skip the network brainwashing of the national audience that this one matchup is the only one that matters. This will require a bit of self-control from the networks, as year in and year out, the ratings for the games featuring the two AL East rivals have drawn high ratings. This year was no different, with a late September game pulling in a 2.6 household rating, which rated 24 percent over a game between the two teams last season at the time. A June 5th game on ESPN pulled a 4.2 Nielson rating with an average of 3,985,000 households. That ranked as the fifth-highest regular-season game ever on ESPN, and according to the Sports Business Daily, it was the most-watched game on ESPN since Mark McGwire hit home run number 61 in 1998 on his way to passing Roger Maris' single-season home run record.

MLB has gone out of its way to make it seem as if it has to live and die with the Yankees and the Red Sox. That being the case, let's hope there's no crying and moaning from the league offices if ratings are low again because two of the 28 other teams make the World Series. If MLB and the networks want to see postseason ratings in the late round of the playoffs remain high, it's incumbent on the two parties to roll out a more diversified schedule of games over the course of the regular season. One doubts that will be happening any time soon, but at least the ratings have been good for the time being.

Maury Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Maury's other articles. You can contact Maury by clicking here

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