Those Disastrous World Series TV Ratings

The popularity of baseball is oft-discussed and yet somewhat difficult to measure. We can look at everything from attendance to jersey sales to commercials to revenue and yet fail to reach any real conclusions due to the constantly changing ways in which people consume media and celebrate fandom.

Another measure is television viewership and ratings. Determining the number of people who have enough interest to watch the sport on television should be a relatively good measure of popularity, although even those measures need context to make any sense. On one hand, local television ratings remain strong during the season, indicating relatively widespread support for the game. On the other hand, the ratings for this season’s World Series between the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers were not good.

Consider a couple of headlines. Like Boston-LA World Series Struck Out Looking for Fox from the LA Times and like The 2018 World Series was Good for the Red Sox–and Bad for Baseball from The Atlantic. Even commissioner Rob Manfred acknowledged disappointment with the ratings after the first few games.

To get a sense of how bad the ratings were this season, let’s first take a look at the ratings historically. While we might not have official numbers in yet for this season, we’ll use the 8.3 rating reported in the LA Times piece linked above. Here are the average ratings since 1984.

On the one hand, that doesn’t look too good. The numbers have, on average, been in decline for three decades. On the other, the ratings appear to have stabilized over the past decade or so, with the obvious exceptions of 2016 and 2017 — seasons which featured (a) two clubs attempting to break long droughts and then (b) seven of the most exciting games in World Series history, respectively. If there is any disappointment over this year’s ratings, it’s probably due to the high expectations created by the previous two years.

For reference, here are the annual World Series ratings presented alongside those for the highest-rated show on television in each relevant year.

For the most part, the World Series has followed general viewing trends. As more options for consumers have emerged, it has become more difficult for any kind of programming to attract a large audience. There have been exceptions: the 1991 World Series between Atlanta and Minnesota, a dramatic post-9/11 Yankees-D-backs event, and the Cubs curse-breaking spectacle. But the relationship between the TV’s No. 1 show and the World Series has been strong, producing an r-squared of .83 during this time period.

Just because World Series ratings mimic overall television trends doesn’t mean MLB shouldn’t be concerned. In this case, however, it shouldn’t be too hard to find reasons why the 2018 version looks a lot more like 2006-15 (9.3 rating) or 2012-2015 (8.4) than 2016 (12.9) or 2017 (10.6). There are a lot of possible reasons for the low ratings this year, including but not limited to:

  • A lack of star power.
  • Length of games.
  • A lack of balls in play (i.e. too many strikeouts).
  • The abundance of relievers.
  • Start time of games (too late).
  • The Dodgers’ lack of a local broadcast for regular-season games.
  • The use of cable networks like FS1 for early-round games.

Those arguments have some merit if we are having general discussions about the state of the sport. The complaints above all probably have some relevance in a general sense, but they apply no more strong to this most recent World Series than the last few seasons of baseball as a whole. Rather, I think the disappointing ratings for the series are based primarily on two factors: overrating Boston’s impact on viewership and the games themselves.

Overrating Boston

Due to the presence of clubs from Boston and Los Angeles, there seemed to be some anticipation of really good ratings. At the very least, Rob Manfred’s disappointment suggests he expected more. The combination of big media markets seem likely to bring better ratings.

It’s a mistake I’ve made before, separating Red Sox and Yankees games from the pool of other games because the expectation for ratings is higher. The 2004 World Series is responsible for shaping that belief, when the series drew a 15.8 rating — that is, significantly higher than the previous two seasons or any of the years that followed despite ending in Boston’s sweep of St. Louis. In reality, that 2004 series was a special event, not unlike the 2016 series. We saw two teams in major media markets with well-publicized droughts capture the country’s attention.

Looking back at the ratings for 2007 and -13, we should have known that Boston’s presence in the World Series wasn’t going to precipitate a big ratings boost. In 2007, the Red Sox’ sweep of the Rockies, the ratings were even with the previous two years, short series won by the White Sox and Cardinals. In 2013, the Cardinals and Red Sox went to six games, but that was below the average of the previous five years, even with a couple of ratings duds in the Giants-Tigers and the Phillies-Rays as comparison. Having a bigger market helps, but outside of the Yankees or a special case, Boston isn’t going to create a big number.

The World Series Wasn’t Great

The Boston-LA World Series had its moments, including a marathon game that will go down in history, but two of the contests featured four-run margins, and another produced a three-run difference. The clinching game felt complete even with a few innings to go. In an ideal world, the last few outs are some of the game’s biggest moments in terms of importance and help boost ratings. That just didn’t happen here. The series was further impacted by not having Games Six and Seven, which also serve to boost ratings. The graph below shows average viewership by World Series game since 2000 compared with this year’s numbers.

World Series Rating Comparison
Game Since 2000 2018 Change
1 9.7 8.2 -15.5%
2 10.6 8.1 -23.6%
3 9.6 7.9 -17.7%
4 11.1 8.0 -27.9%
5 10.6 9.5 -10.4%
6 12.3 NA
7 17.9 NA
Avg 10.9 8.3 -23.9%
Avg. 5-Game Series 9.7 8.3 -14.4%

The addition of Games Six and Seven generally adds around 14% to the figure through the first five games. That alone accounts for a large portion of the decrease we see in the ratings relate to the past two years. Last season we saw two extra-inning games plus another three games decided by three runs or fewer, and that helped produce good ratings. That alone doesn’t explain much, as the series still did worse than what we’ve seen over the past two decades.

World Series Rating Comparison
Game Type Since 2000 2018 Change
Blowout (4+ R) 10.3 8.9 -13.6%
Average 10.9 8.3 -23.9%
Clincher( G4-6) 11.9 9.5 -20.2%
Close Game 11.1 8.1 -27.0%
Extra-Innings 12.0 7.9 -34.2%

The recently completed series was worse across the board when compared to similar situations, though even 15 years might be too far back to find a real apples-to-apples comparison. There are Game Sixes and Sevens included in this second table, as well as games featuring the 2004 Red Sox, the 2015 Cubs, and a handful of Yankees teams. The last three five-game World Series matchups have resulted in an average rating of 8.5, and this year arrived at basically the same result. There is probably a lot MLB can do to better promote the game of baseball, but fans ultimately tune in for compelling narratives and close games from start to finish. This season lacked both, and the ratings suffered.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

A sample size of one, but here are my thoughts:
1) Games were too late and too long (I go to bed at 9:30)
2) As someone who is part of the fanbase of a mid-market team, I had no interest in watching the Red Sox or Dodgers, especially given their recent success.

5 years ago
Reply to  DBRuns

Yep, I can’t even think of a reason anyone who is not actually a fan of one of those teams would care. I guess maybe Yankees and Giants fans would be interested in seeing their rival lose, but your not going to move the needle as much when the only interest anyone has is negative.

I also think the playoffs can build on itself. And that didn’t really happen, even with the Dodgers/Brewers series going seven games, as the games did not generally have a lot of late suspense.

5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

You know there are fans of baseball itself, right?

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

Are there more “fans of baseball” who’ll tune in for whatever or fans of small market teams with very low odds of seeing a WS winner of their own? I think it’s the latter.

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

I believe it was Bill Veeck who said something along the lines of “Serve only baseball fans and you’ll be out of business in 6 months.”

MLB has ruined the suspense with cable-only play-offs (25% of the country does not have cable); start times much too late for the World Series; ignore the next generation by price gouging (that’s why attendance declined this year); have some G-d awful announcers, and top it all off with too long commercial breaks.

The money remains there ($10 billion+ in 2018) but the fault lines (attendance, tv ratings) are showing.

Famous Mortimer
5 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

Completely agree with @GoNyGoNYGoGo. There’s this constant droning from hardcore fans that nothing needs to change, that “casual” fans are worthless, etc.

5 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

The solution though is mid-game ad breaks though! That will surely make the experience better!

5 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

Cable – only blows for sure. Every series of 5 games or more needs a couple of day games, both for get away days and to attract younger (and oldish) viewers and East coasters when a Pacific time team hosts. And in a day game we can be a bit more tolerant of commercials … go get a beer, take a whiz, check your e-mail.

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

until they can differentially monetize the hardcore fans, the filthy casuals are gonna be the most important segment.

5 years ago
Reply to  SucramRenrut

You know an 8.3 rating means people tuned in, right?

I’m a fan of baseball generally, but I really don’t like either of the WS teams and that influenced my viewership. I watched every NLCS game, hoping the Brewers could eke out the pennant, but only watched a few innings after G2. It was a pretty foregone conclusion that the Sox would win, so I couldn’t even watch for drama.

5 years ago
Reply to  TKDC

The Dodgers haven’t won a World Series in three decades–a longer run than many small-market teams, like the Reds, Twins, and As. I too am a fan of a mid-market team, but seeing that kind of streak of futility end is always interesting.

Jason Bmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Ryan21

I don’t know if 30 years can be classified as a “streak of futility”. All things being equal (which they never are), you would expect a team in a 30-team league to win just once every 30 years anyway.

5 years ago
Reply to  Jason B

Right, but the original contention was that the Dodgers have had MORE than their fair share of success lately, and were uninteresting for that reason.

5 years ago
Reply to  Roger21

The Dodgers have made the postseason for 6 years in a row. It’s the third best such streak in baseball history. The Mariners haven’t made the postseason since 2001, and in that time the Dodgers have been there 10 times. The Dodgers have had a lot of recent success.

The Padres, Mariners, Rockies, Marlins, Brewers, Rays, and Nationals/Expos haven’t even made the postseason 6 times total.

NATS Fanmember
5 years ago
Reply to  Ryan21

When you have by far the most salary dedicated to players, it feels like your losers not worth rooting for when you do not win. When you do win everyone feels that was always going to happen. Neither scenario makes me want to watch.

5 years ago
Reply to  NATS Fan

This feels like you are saying the Dodgers have by far the highest payroll. They were third behind the Red Sox and Giants. But maybe you were talking about the Red Sox payroll

5 years ago
Reply to  DBRuns

“Recent success”? Dodgers? No way. They have failed to win a World Series since 1988 (I should know, I was there for it). It is now quite clear to me the 1988 WS was the last one that the Dodgers will win in my lifetime. That’s personally depressing.

5 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Yeah, I’m sure being the highest payroll team and ongoing current favourite in the NL makes rooting for them just unbearable. I mean, no team has overcome repeated postseason failures to finally win the WS since 1988. Except for the Blue Jays. And the Braves. And the Angels, White Sox, Red Sox, Cubs, Phillies and Astros. You’re DOOOMed!

5 years ago
Reply to  DBRuns

Mostly this. It was a WS that many would have guessed going into the year. Both teams have starting pitching staffs that make close or more than entire teams rosters…..There was just no compelling storyline for actually watching.

I’m not saying it’s better or worse to have unexpected teams in the series, but how do you engage younger folks to watch a game where 2 teams with gigantic conpetetive advantages face each other? That’s not really fun.

Also. Joe Buck

5 years ago
Reply to  DBRuns

I was horribly disappointed that “fans apathetic due to lack of league parity” was not included here, though hopefully the comments are making it clear that it’s an issue. You don’t have to be a huge fan of baseball to realize these are big teams who beat the little teams by buying a pennant. It’s like watching the Cowboys vs. the Cowboys. Who will win? Who cares?