Television ratings are a fickle thing. Not the easiest for the average fan to glean info from (Is share better than total household numbers, or…?), the numbers are a source of saying that a sporting event was popular or not (for the record last year was a hit, due to the return of the Yankees to the postseason. Plus, ratings internationally were very high)
With the 2010 postseason nearly upon us, the question will once again be, “Is baseball drifting from the collective conscious of America?” Media – often of the radio ilk – has had a field day talking of how the Super Bowl, a ratings juggernaut, is “x amount” better than the World Series.
There’s little discounting that the Super Bowl is far more popular than anything that a sport that offers a best of seven series can offer. The drama of a single game for all the marbles creates a massive event-driven atmosphere.
So, for MLB, the best form of competition is with itself. How ratings fare from one year to another dictates how much interest diehard, as well as fringe fans, have interest.
At its simplest level, MLB’s postseason ratings game boils down to two things: market size, and brand power. More often than not, the two are intertwined, with some exceptions (this would be you, St. Louis).
With the regular season about to end, the “bad thing”, if you want to call it that, is one of likely lower ratings than in recent years. Only the future knows how the level of play is, but we could witness some of the greatest baseball played and not have it resonate with a national viewing audience from sea-to-shining-sea. In that sense, Bud Selig, and fans of parity, gets what we’ve been asking for: variety. Television execs may not be so happy.
Here’s why… Based upon the standings today, these are the teams that will, or could make the postseason:
For the likes of FOX and TBS the ratings game hinges almost exclusively on the Yankees. With no Cubs, Dodgers, or Red Sox in play, the biggest brands from large markets are absent from this year’s crop of teams. To make lemonade out of “ratings lemons”, the networks are looking at the Braves and the Phillies to be the National League storyline to pin their best hopes for the most viewers in the World Series. The choice between them is somewhat of a coin flip. Both come from large markets, with postseason history. If the Phillies were to make the World Series, it would mark the third time in as many years that they had done as much, something that hasn’t happened since Yankees did so from 1999-2001 (technically, they had 4 straight years in the WS starting in 1998). If they were to win the Series, the “dynasty discussion” would start making the rounds. On the flip side, some fans might be turned off by a repeat of last year’s Series match-up.
If the Braves were to go deep into the postseason and make the World Series, it would mark the first time back since 1999, and mark the return to the postseason since 2005. The advantage of the Braves from a ratings perspective lies in their market location (the South) and broad natural appeal that still lingers from TBS having them as their flagship before reaching their deal with MLB to become a national broadcast outlet (now, the Braves are treated equally with their other MLB brothers).
All this isn’t to say that the networks wouldn’t have storylines to work from with the other teams. The story for the Reds would be the first trip to the postseason since 1995, and who knows how many Big Red Machine references there’d be? If the Rockies were to make the postseason, it would be a near mirror image of the white-hot run they made in 2007. For the Rays, there will be talk of their run in 2008.
For the Twins, it marks the first time the club has gone back-to-back to the postseason since 2002-04 and a return after meeting the Yankees last year in the ALDS. The Twins will also get to play postseason ball in Target Field, which was unveiled this season.
For the Giants it would mark the first time back to the postseason since 2003, and for the Padres, it would mean returning to the postseason for the first time since going back-to-back to the NLDS in 2005-06.
Finally, there are the Rangers, who out of Tom Hicks’ bumbled bankruptcy, are returning to the postseason for the first time in over a decade. The “Claw and Antlers” marketing, and the feel good story of Chuck Greenberg and Nolan Ryan winning at auction just a few short months ago, would give the playoffs a Texas-sized market hungry for a return to the playoffs.
But, back to the ratings machine… Maybe… Just maybe, what’s needed is a shock to the system. Maybe what’s needed is a Rockies vs. Rays World Series. In it, we get two expansion clubs that have shown recent brilliance, and yet, have no storied history upon which to lean. It would prove that the runs by the clubs (Rockies in 2007 and Rays in 2008) give the small-to-mid-markets a real chance, and make for compelling and competitive baseball. It would cause the networks (and fringe fans) to rethink baseball beyond the Pablum diet of Red Sox and Yankee tilts that ESPN and FOX jam down fans’ throats, giving baseball a near brainwashed state; as if there were no other compelling storylines. And, in the end, if runs of this nature were to continue season after season, networks would actually gain some cover. After all, as this season shows, there’s more than one flavor of teams cycling up and down in the standings, and therefore, instead of living with all their eggs in one basket, fans (and networks) might be more apt to follow all of MLB’s clubs, not just a handful of large market teams.
Still, chances are good that another trip to the World Series is in store for the Yankees this year. FOX and TBS are hoping so. But if not, let’s look past the markets and the brands and get on bended knee… pray for great, great games. Pray that what we get from teams that haven’t had regular postseason runs is incredibly compelling baseball. In that, the networks grow ratings for the future…. Or, at least we can all hope.
Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for freelance and looks forward to your comments.