This past Sunday night, one of the most important baseball games of the year went head-to-head with a primetime regular-season NFL broadcast on NBC. Millions more opted to watch the Chicago Cubs host their final home game of the year and stave off elimination in a close game. That Major League Baseball went head-to-head with the NFL and won isn’t that big of a deal. That MLB has garnered ratings not seen in a decade, however — and bested the top-rated program in all of television over the past few years — represents a big win for a sport receiving near-constant criticism for sagging ratings.
The broadcast of Game Five on Sunday night was one of the highest-rated broadcasts for the World Series in years. Since Boston ended their 86-year championship drought back in 2004, only one game has drawn more than the 23.6 million viewers Cleveland and Chicago netted on Sunday night: Game Seven of the 2011 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers. If you remove clinching games, it was one of the most viewed games of the century. The table below shows the most-viewed non-clinching games since 2000, the year FOX exclusively began broadcasting the World Series.
More people tuned into to see Sunday night’s World Series game than watched Game One in 2004 when the Red Sox began their attempt to end the curse. The game drew more viewers than the epic extra-inning Game Six between the Cardinals and Rangers in 2011. Indeed, only one non-2004 World Series game exceeded Sunday night’s in terms of viewership: the Diamondbacks-Yankees contest from 2001, best remembered for Derek Jeter’s 10th-inning walk-off homer against Byung-Hyun Kim.
With at least one game to go in this year’s series, we’ve already seen one of the more highly rated World Series of the century. Here’s where the series stands before Game Six.
Despite featuring only two close games out of five, and without the benefit of a clinching game, this series already ranks fifth since 2000 in viewership. The end of Boston’s drought and that epic seven-game series between the Diamondbacks and Yankees just weeks after 9/11 both drew great numbers. The only other series ahead of the current one — the seven-game set between the Florida Marlins and New York Yankees and the six-game series between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies — are well within reach for Chicago and Cleveland, even if their series doesn’t reach a seventh game.
The table below depicts the quantity of viewers needed for tonight’s game to allow the series, as a whole, to pass previous series. It also indicates how many viewers the series would need to average over the last two games if the series went seven games.
|Viewers in Game 6||AVG Viewers in Game 6 and 7|
|BOS-STL (04)||55.9 M||40.7 M|
|ARI-NYY (01)||50.5 M||37.5 M|
|FLA-NYY (03)||24.1 M||22.1 M|
|NYY-PHI (09)||19.9 M||19.7 M|
There’s a really good chance that this series moves ahead of the 2003 and 2009 editions tonight, although it’s unlikely to catch either 2001 or 2004 in average viewers, absent an absolutely wild Game Six followed up by an incredible Game Seven — and then, even that might not be enough. In terms of total viewers, this year’s series will surpass the ’04 series tonight; if it were to go seven games, it would likely be the second-most-watched World Series of the century behind the 2001 series.
While the ratings for this series are high, they would likely have been higher with more competitive games. The graph below shows the average ratings since 2000 by game of the series and where this series stands.
This series overperformed the average in Games One, Three, and Five while coming up a bit short in Games Two and Four. We can see in the graph that a Game Six receives a decent bump over the rest of the series while a Game Seven receives a roughly 60% bump over the rest of the series. In the context of Chicago vs. Cleveland, that could put viewership up over 30 million people for a World Series game for the first time since Game Seven of the 2002 World Series. Tonight’s game could still reach 30 million viewers — although there’s a greater chance of that if Cleveland wins, as clinching games get higher ratings. The chart below, with some of the data reproduced from the piece I wrote last year on the affect of the New York market on series ratings, shows how ratings are impacted by the outcome and different types of the games.
People tend to watch close, important games. When the games aren’t close, like several of the games in the year’s series, fewer people watch.
While a few of the games in this series have drawn below-average ratings compared to their corresponding game numbers since 2000, also consider how television ratings have changed, even during the last decade. From 2000 to -04, the top shows on television were Survivor, CSI, Friends, and American Idol. In the last five years, the top shows have been Sunday Night Football and NCIS. Moreover, consider that the top-rated shows over the last five years are down 20% compared to the top-rated programs from more than a decade ago. The 2016 World Series has bucked those trends, and that’s why it’s important that it beat Sunday Night Football, a generally top-rated program.
A little over 30 years ago, the Kansas City Royals and St. Louis Cardinals played in a seven-game series featuring a seventh game that received a 32.6 rating, a high figure. That same year, however, the Cosby Show averaged a 33.7. The next year, the Red Sox and Mets played a great seven-game series, and the series averaged a 28.6 rating; that was behind the Cosby Show’s 34.9, however. (Even Game Seven’s 38.9 rating wasn’t too much higher than the viewership for the average Cosby Show.) In the late 80s, ratings for the top-rated shows tumbled into the 20s; by the late 90s, it was in the teens; and now, those numbers struggle to reach into the teens.
Earlier this summer, the Cleveland Cavaliers staged a great comeback against the Golden State Warriors, erasing a 3-1 series deficit on their way to the title. The NBA championships featured their best ratings since 1998, when Michael Jordan was still with the Chicago Bulls. That series averaged 20.1 million viewers, something the World Series is likely to beat in just six games — and would easily best if the series were to go to seven games. This series is unique given the appeal of the Cubs, not unlike the Red Sox more than a decade ago. Despite the implications of either a Chicago or Cleveland victory, however, the series isn’t immune from basic principles at work in terms of why people watch games. Game Two was a bit of a slog and the ratings reflected it, while Game Five was a close game with much at stake — and that, too, was reflected in the ratings. Tonight’s game has a lot of things going for it, with a potential clincher and Game Seven looming, and if the game is a close one, it will push even higher on the list of most-watched World Series matchups this century.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.