Without rehashing the baseball-is-dying trope, it should be noted that the television ratings for this year’s All-Star Game took a pretty steep dive. Over the past half-decade, the ratings had held pretty steady, which is actually a positive trend relative to the general decline in television viewership as a whole — as well as the lack of interest in the other major sports’ All-Star contests. While the All-Star game still managed to draw nearly 9 million viewers, that figure also represent a 20% drop from last year’s contest — and seems to indicate that the exhibition lacks some of the draw that the event possessed when major-league broadcasts were few and far between.
In the grand scheme of baseball viewership, however, the All-Star game appears to represent an anomaly rather than a building trend. Because even as fewer people tuned into the midsummer class than almost ever before, local television ratings, which are up again over last season, indicate that more and more viewers are watching baseball on a regular basis.
Two years ago, the Royals came out of nowhere to make the World Series. Last year, that momentum carried over to viewers as Kansas City led MLB teams in local ratings. After winning the World Series last year, Kansas City is still watching a ton of baseball. Ratings-wise the two teams from Missouri boast the top two spots in baseball, per Forbes.
The top 11 teams are either currently in playoff contention or were expected to be in playoff contention at the beginning of the season. At the other end of the chart resides a handful of teams either (a) not contending, (b) playing in major markets which offer more competition for viewers, or (c) still in the middle of carriage fights with cable providers — or some combination of all three. Just like with attendance, viewers tend to go with winners. When compared to the competition, MLB teams have done very well. As the Forbes piece cited above indicates, 10 teams ranks first in prime time locally, even including broadcast networks, and another dozen are first when considering only cable programming. Another team, the Yankees, places second only because the Mets are in first.
Ratings are particular to markets and don’t directly translate into raw viewer numbers, as the figures are based on the percentage of households in that market. Or, rephrased: just because a greater percentage of people are watching games in Kansas City, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, that doesn’t necessarily mean more total people are watching than in other markets. The chart below shows the raw number of households, on average, that are watching each game on the local channel.
While the Mets and Yankees don’t currently possess the highest ratings, in part due to more local competition (including with each other), they do occupy the top spot when it comes to total viewers. The Dodgers are still sadly in the middle of the pack due to their inability to get Sportsnet LA on all of the cable plans in the area. Just as many people are watching the lowly Twins as the likely playoff-bound Dodgers in Vin Scully’s final season. The Cubs have made major moves forward over the past few seasons, tripling their ratings from just two years ago.
Fifty-thousand — or even 100,000 — households per game might not seem like a lot. As the ratings figure suggest, however, that’s a strong total in most local markets. And combining the individual market numbers into a collective figure produces big overall numbers — especially when one considers that games last three hours, the equivalent of three dramas or six sitcoms in an evening. Adding up the numbers, more than 2.5 million people on average are watching roughly three hours of baseball almost every single night. That’s omitting any consideration of national broadcasts, playoffs or MLB.TV. Over the course of a six-month season, that’s more than 1 billion hours of baseball watched (with commercials) on cable channels that receive a monthly per-subscriber fee to stay on the main cable tier.
Let’s compare those numbers to last season at the halfway point to see how baseball is doing. The chart below depicts the difference in households from the 2015 season at the halfway point to the 2016 season at the same point.
As the chart illustrates, the Cubs and Mets have seen big spikes in the last year, as both teams created increased expectations for this season after fielding competitive teams last year. A combination of their early success and the possession of a few promising young players seems to have helped the Phillies’ fortunes. The Dodgers appeared on more cable packages this season, so even without full coverage, they see an increase as do a handful of other teams competitive both this season and last. The biggest drop over the past season has occurred in St. Louis. While ratings-wise the team is still in very good shape, a lackluster offseason and the relative dominance of the Cubs early this season might have caused a sizable decrease in viewers.
One thing to note: the increased viewership does not directly translate to increased profits. While advertising revenue certainly helps RSNs, many are not owned by baseball teams. Even the ones that are owned, at least in part, see a vast majority of their revenue from per-subscriber fees as opposed to advertising. For more on local television revenue and per team estimates, see our piece from April.
Overall, there’s been an increase of 121,000 viewers across the board, an increase of 5% over last season. The All-Star game might have lost a couple million, but MLB stands to have an increase locally about 10 times that amount. In an era where fewer and fewer people are even watching television and ratings for the Olympics are down 25%, seeing an increase in viewers is a plus for Major League Baseball. While the shift over viewership from national games to local ones can make it look like popularity is shrinking, it’s representative of the industry and our population as a whole.
The proliferation of cable networks and 100-plus-channel lineups began segmenting viewers 30 years ago, providing more direct access to programs more closely suiting the consumer’s interest. That segmentation took eyeballs away from nationally broadcast baseball games and onto other sports and other programs. However, cable filled a potential void by providing massively more local content, particularly access to almost every local baseball game so as to meet the desires of those whose segmented interest was the local ballclub. The rise of hybrid cable/internet and purely digital programming is further segmenting consumers, but also allowing programming to reach more people by increasing variety. Where local RSNs provided programming in the past and present, MLB.TV and its growth are prepared to provide for the present and future and continue to provide access to the still very large population of people who love to watch baseball.
Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.