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People who like to talk about baseball's impending doom (which as far as I can tell, has been "impending" since the end of the deadball era) have a new (old) talking point – baseball's ratings in the playoffs. This is done largely by focusing on one playoff game that underperformed Monday Night Football. And, yes, it happened. But it's only one data point – and there are a lot of other data points that say ratings for this year's playoffs are on the upswing, compared to when MLB started airing part of the playoffs on cable.

Now, in a larger historical context, ratings for playoff baseball have been dropping pretty steadily over time. The simplest explanation for this is change in the overall broadcast landscape over time. Let's look at the World Series ratings over time, compared with US Census figures on the number of basic cable subscribers:

Graph of WS ratings and households with basic cable.

The red line represents cable TV subscribers, using the axis on the left. (Cable households are expressed in thousands, following the convention the Census uses – 10,000 on the chart really means 10 million.) The blue line is the average ratings share, as measured by Nielsen, for the World Series that year, using the axis on the right. Note the gap in '94, due to the strike. I do want to note that Nielsen does not cover Canada, and so is probably understating the relative viewership of the '92 and '93 World Series, which featured the Toronto Blue Jays. 2009 is not included, due to the lack of Census data.

What you can see is a pretty steady rise in the number of people who have at least basic cable. (You do see a downtick in cable users over time starting around 2000, as you see the rise of alternatives to cable.) And you see a corresponding decline in World Series viewership. Baseball is being buffeted by the same forces that pretty much all programming is – there are a lot more choices for people these days, and so any one program has difficulty attracting the same number of eyeballs as it would have a decade or two ago.

Outside of the broader historic trends, there are two specific issues to look at. The first is the recession. This should likely play into MLB's favor, as sitting at home and watching TV is a relatively cheap form of entertainment. (This could explain the rise we've already seen in the Division Series and Championship Series ratings.)

The other question is about the size of the markets involved. Using Nate Silver's model of team broadcast markets, I came up with the average market size for every World Series matchup since 2000:

 

Year

Team 1

Team 2

Avg. Market

2000

New York Yankees 

New York Mets

20,838,271

2001

Arizona Diamondbacks 

New York Yankees

14,835,771

2002

Anaheim Angels

San Francisco Giants

11,399,534

2003

Florida Marlins 

New York Yankees

15,167,036

2004

Boston Red Sox

St. Louis Cardinals

10,206,300

2005

Chicago White Sox

Houston Astros

10,195,427

2006

St. Louis Cardinals 

Detroit Tigers

9,322,389

2007

Boston Red Sox 

Colorado Rockies

7,950,387

2008

Tampa Bay Rays

Philadelphia Phillies

9,831,899

2009

New York Yankees 

Philadelphia Phillies

18,226,113

2010

Texas Rangers

San Francisco Giants

9,582,391

This is a series that lacks an obvious top market like New York or Los Angeles, but lacks a really small market as well. The 2009 series, featuring a matchup of two of the biggest markets, was a aberration – ratings this year ought to see a fall-off from last year, even given the boost from the recession. There's no reason the series couldn't put up numbers like the Rays-Phillies or Cardinals-Tigers did, though.

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Guancous
10/25
Is the Fox cable battle accounted for in the ratings?
cwyers
10/25
No. It accounts for about 3 million households, IIRC - it's probably not a big impact, especially without New York or Philadelphia in the World Series.
uptick
10/25
correlation does not imply causation
cwyers
10/25
Of course it doesn't. I don't know where I suggested it did. I was hoping to illustrate what was going on with the graph, not "prove" anything. There is plenty of available evidence that the growth of cable television has impacted broadcast TV ratings. Just one example: "In the 1952-53 season, more than 30 percent of American households watched NBC during prime time, according to Nielsen. Today that figure is roughly 5 percent." NBC is on a greater slide than ABC or CBS, to be sure. But this is an industry-wide effect, not one limited to baseball. And the number of cable subscribers was chosen as a crude proxy, largely due to its inclusion in the Census data - there are probably better ways to model the change in TV viewing choices over time.
jmoore
10/25
Is there a similar trend for the Super Bowl? The NFL would have the same competition for eyes, though the one game championship setting which helps position the event as a de facto national holiday may change the equation.
BurrRutledge
10/25
I was thinking a comparison chart to Monday Night Football average share over the course of the season. MNF has been going on long enough that we should have enough datapoints to make a comparison, with mixed market sizes, etc. And, it's not subject to the SuperBowl National Holiday (SBNH) phenomenon.
cwyers
10/25
In the data I have for the Super Bowl, you do still see a decline, although a much shallower one than you see for the World Series. I think the point about a single game is notable - if you look at years where the World Series goes to seven games (I only have single-game ratings from '09 to '84 currently), there's a dramatic rise in ratings in Game 7. You get roughly 1.3 times as many viewers for Game 7 as you do for the rest of the series.
hessshaun
10/26
May be a stupid question but, how did you arrive with the NY vs. NY numbers?