Up until this year, the NFL didn't play a game on the first Sunday of the World Series. There were two main reasons for this. The romantic version -- the NFL did it out of deference to America's pastime -- and the actual version -- the league and its Sunday night network partner were afraid of taking a hit in the ratings while everyone was watching the Fall Classic.
But judging by Sunday night's numbers, you could say the NFL was doing it out of pity for Major League Baseball.
A regular-season game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints attracted more viewers than the pivotal fourth game of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers. The NFL game on NBC drew an 11.4 rating and 18 share, while FOX's broadcast of the World Series did a 10.4/16.
The easy explanation for the numbers is that which has been clear for the better part of a quarter-century: Football is much more popular than baseball. But for the World Series to get less viewers than a regular-season NFL game? There has to be more to it than that:
1. As Jeff Passan wrote on Yahoo! last week, the World Series has "less buzz than a dead bee." The last time I remember a Series having such little buzz was in 2002 when the Giants played the Anaheim Angels. But at least that matchup had Barry Bonds. This one has Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee. Great if you're a big baseball fan, not if you're a casual sports fan. Before the playoffs, I bet most casual fans (the kind of folks who drive ratings for big sporting events) couldn't have named more than two players on either team.
2. In addition to the lack of buzz, the World Series games have been instantly forgettable. There hasn't been one signature moment thus far. In 36 innings, there has been one lead change, and that took place in the fifth inning of Game 1. Baseball isn't boring. But bad baseball is.
3. The NFL game was another excellent Sunday night matchup between the defending Super Bowl champions and the perenniel powers from Pittsburgh. There are a ton of Steelers fans nationwide and a bunch of new Saints bandwagon fans courtesy last year's success. Throw in that it was the Steelers (and Ben Roethlisberger's)(notes) first primetime game of the season and interest was huge.
4. It was Halloween night.
5. Watching baseball on FOX with Joe Buck and Tim McCarver in grainy 720p high definition, with loud sound effects and awful direction is one of the least enjoyable television-watching experiences in sports. Watching football on NBC with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth in crystal clear 1080i high definition, with the best current sports theme music and direction that doubles as story-telling is one of the best television watching-experiences in sports.