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.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred says that he, too, is a bit frustrated/bewildered about current World Series ratings. Despite west coast/east matchup w two glamour teams, G1-2 ratings off ~10% & lowest since SF/KC in '14. "We're looking hard at it and haven't isolated a cause."
— Eric Fisher (@EricFisherSBJ) October 26, 2018
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.
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.
|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.
|Game Type||Since 2000||2018||Change|
|Blowout (4+ R)||10.3||8.9||-13.6%|
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.