America is missing out on a great World Series
One day. That’s all I ask. Please, for all that is good in this world, give me a 24-hour moratorium on the breathless talk about Major League Baseball’s television ratings and the doom they portend. In the middle of the most compelling World Series in a decade, one of the overriding themes is that nobody is watching.
And to those people, all I have to say is: Sorry, suckers. You’re missing something great.
Earlier this week, in an interview with Bob Costas, commissioner Bud Selig said television ratings “are always a concern.” To which I reply: Why? Why does anybody aside from Rupert Murdoch and his minions at Fox give a thousandth of a whoop about how many people watch the games? Why does baseball insist on comparing itself to the NFL?
Baseball needs to stop apologizing for its poor TV ratings. They are the furthest thing from a smudge on the game and where it has moved in today’s sporting world. No longer is baseball the national pastime. Football stole that title long ago. Once baseball embraces that notion publicly – it remains a work in progress – it will set the sport free to promote its victories, one of which has allowed it to keep attendance high during a recession, bring in more revenue than ever and put out some of the highest-quality play in the game’s history.
MLB’s quiet evolution into a parochial sport – one that thrives off the popularity of teams locally instead of capturing the entire country’s attention come October – gives it the capital to break its slavery to national ratings. As long as baseball fans like to watch their local team, their inattention come the postseason is more an indictment on the fans than the sport. No one can make horses sip water.
Baseball is giving them an oceanful, too. The product for the last month has been superlative. The final night of the regular season was the single greatest in the sport’s history. The first round of the playoffs produced three do-or-die Game 5s. The league championship series spit out the St. Louis Cardinals and Texas Rangers, teams with stars (Albert Pujols(notes) and Josh Hamilton(notes)), compelling managers (Tony La Russa and Ron Washington) and rosters so even that the chances of the first Game 7 in a decade felt like a given.
And here we are, five games into it, and it has exceeded expectations. The first two games produced one-run nailbiters. Pujols set or tied World Series records for home runs, RBIs and total bases in one of the greatest performances in postseason history. The next day, a 25-year-old named Derek Holland(notes), with the worst mustache since Pedro in “Napoleon Dynamite,” became the first pitcher since 2003 to throw more than eight scoreless innings in a World Series game. Game 5 set a new standard, with La Russa, the future Hall of Fame manager, bungling a game unlike any he ever bungled.
According to Fox, about 14.3 million people watched that game. In a press release, the network said its “World Series coverage projects to handily out-rate the NFL for the second straight night in primetime.”
Yeah. The 62-7 Sunday night game and 12-7 Monday night game.
Look, baseball’s inferiority complex vis-à-vis the NFL remains among its weirdest – and weakest – foci. This year, regular-season baseball games were viewed more than 400 million times in metered markets, about the same as in 2010, according to MLB. Local television broadcasts, delivered these days via regional sports networks, not only provide season-long coverage but are at the groundswell of new money. Come 2015, the Rangers will rake in $80 million a year for two decades from Fox Sports Southwest. At the heart of MLB’s court fight with Frank McCourt is neither his divorce nor his misuse of team funds; the other 29 owners want him gone so he doesn’t sign an undermarket TV deal and wreck their leverage going forward.
Advertisers realize live sports are the closest thing there is to DVR- and on-demand-proof programming. Anyone with the temerity to record a game must avoid Twitter, Facebook, the web, sports television news, text messages and the phone to ensure a spoiler-free existence.
And considering just how plugged-in baseball has become, this takes an infinite amount of willpower. The ability to consume baseball never saw a better hour than the Night of 162. As four teams jockeyed for playoff position, fans watched games on TV, tweeted, streamed games online, supplemented that with their iPads, listened on satellite radio and soaked in the craziness in person. MLB’s embrace of new media a decade ago leaves it as far and away the industry leader in the sorts of technologies needed to sell its game. Content is king. Baseball produces the most content.
There are problems that deal with baseball’s popularity beyond ratings, the most important of which is the shrinking number of children playing the game. Attendance was up about half a million this year, which shows that for now, at least, parents continue to take kids to the ballpark.
Barring an increase in ticket prices that would exclude lower- and middle-class fans – MLB provides the cheapest get-a-seat tickets in professional sports – attendance shouldn’t plummet. And that happens to be the only reason fans should care about ratings: If they drop to the point where networks don’t pay MLB a reasonable rate for its playoff broadcasts and sport-wide revenue drops, the cost could be passed on to fans.
The chances of that happening are infinitesimal. Live sports remain a treasure chest for networks. The World Series is a sporting jewel and will be until the audience dwindles to nothing. The game’s recovery from the stain of steroids is impressive considering that less than 10 years ago performance-enhancing drug testing didn’t exist.
Still, Selig has trouble selling baseball’s successes to the public. His recitation of this being MLB’s “golden era” is like an advertising slogan that a company stubbornly refuses to let go. For all of his business acumen, Selig is not the charismatic leader who can easily slough off low ratings as the furthest thing from a real barometer of baseball’s health. The emphasis on ratings from the media is simply a matter of expectations. Compare yourself to the NFL and you’re bound to look inferior.
This should be about the product, not about how many people saw it. Who cares if tens of millions watched the World Series decades ago, when TV was the dominant form of entertainment, or hundreds of millions watch the Super Bowl? The fans that choose not to watch the World Series are missing out on the sort of compelling sporting narrative only a long series can provide.
The ratings may spike for Game 6 (and will if there is a Game 7), and MLB will send out press releases touting them like they are victories. And that is all well and good. If bigger ratings this year lead to bigger ratings next year, bully for baseball.
Should MLB continue on its current path, where national TV viewership stagnates, hopefully the league will learn to embrace its strengths and not concern itself with indicators that don’t reflect the game’s true state. It has labor peace. It has great storylines. It has fantastic players. It has a wonderful product.
If people don’t want to watch, fine. Their loss.
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