MLB TV Ratings Up 26% Despite Judge’s Disappearing Act, Mets’ Malaise

As the pitch clock continues to go about its dark, time-devouring magic, the ratings for Major League Baseball’s four national TV partners are up 26% versus the year-ago period—this despite the fact that the game’s biggest draws are wallowing in a stew of mediocrity that’s not much fun to watch.

According to Nielsen data compiled from Opening Day on March 30 through Tuesday, June 27, of this year, MLB’s national broadcast and cable windows across Fox, ESPN, FS1 and TBS are averaging 923,689 viewers per game, for a net gain of nearly 200,000 fans per outing. Zero in on the big weekend packages and the boosts are less eye-popping, yet still significant; the Fox and ESPN productions are up 4% to 1.63 million viewers per game, an improvement that flies in the face of an attendant 11% decline in overall TV usage.

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Individually, the four networks are all at different stages on their respective MLB journeys. Fox, which has bragging rights to the five most-watched games of the season thus far, has seen its overall deliveries slip 5% to 1.81 million viewers per game—a year-over-year loss of around 86,533 viewers. While much of that regression may be chalked up to a scheduling anomaly—Fox in 2023 has aired 12 national MLB windows, up from just five in the year-ago span—the broadcaster has had a run of bum luck on the meteorological front, losing a spring Braves-Mets game and one of the season’s first scheduled Yankees-Red Sox games to rainouts.

ESPN’s MLB coverage is up 4% to 1.49 million viewers per game, good for an average gain of 53,185 fans. While any increase counts as a win during a time of accelerated cord-cutting (in the last year alone, ESPN has lost 5.37 million linear-TV subs), the current bump has been achieved in the absence of the game’s biggest (literally) star. Of the four Yankees games ESPN has carried in 2023, zero featured the Nielsen-meter-rocking exploits of Aaron Judge, who’s been sidelined with a toe injury since June 3.

The boutique packages are also in flux. TBS’ non-exclusive Tuesday night showcase is up a whopping 36% to 325,154 viewers per game, while FS1 is pacing toward a record-low MLB turnout with an average draw of 261,789. That marks a 15% drop compared with the analogous period in 2022. FS1 also continues to deal with subscriber churn, losing 4.08 million households in a 12-month span.

MLB’s overall TV deliveries have beefed up since the countdown clock was introduced, a wholly predictable consequence of eliminating many of the leaden moments and between-pitch neuroses that had made 21st-century baseball an exercise in tedium. Ratings are derived from the average number of people watching a telecast at any given minute in which it airs; as such, a reduction in duration offers fewer opportunities for fans to drift away from the games, which in turn leads to higher deliveries. With the average nine-inning game now clocking in at 2 hours and 40 minutes, baseball has hacked away 26 minutes of dead air per contest—a pace that hasn’t been seen since the early-1980s.

At the midway point of the season, the benefits of baseball’s foray into legislated urgency are outweighing the miasmatic state of play in New York, Los Angeles and Boston. The four clubs that regularly deliver the biggest TV audiences seem for all the world as if they’re trying to bring back the Deadball Era, when men wore oven mitts in the outfield and the balls were stuffed with sodden plugs of tobacco and human teeth. The Mets and their record $344 million payroll on Thursday were 36-44 and 17 games back in the NL East, a less-than-spectacular showing given that they were 47-28 and perched atop the division a year ago. After putting together a combined 100-48 record at this time last season, the Dodgers and Yankees are currently scraping by at 88-71; meanwhile, the basement-dwelling Red Sox are a game under .500.

While they’re not basting their fans in Mets-grade levels of existential despair, the 2023 Yankees aren’t exactly must-see TV. The unlikely heroics of Domingo Germán aside—on the heels of giving up 17 runs in just 5.3 innings, the hurler on Wednesday night threw the first perfect game since August 2012—Yankee partisans haven’t had much to cheer about since Judge hurt himself by pulling a Kool-Aid Man on the wall in Dodgers Stadium. With the $360 million slugger in the lineup, the Yanks are 30-19 (0.612); without Judge, they’re gimping along at 14-17 (0.452). For what it’s worth, Fox was fortunate enough to air two games in which Judge participated, while TBS back on April 4 reaped the benefits of the big fella’s only other national appearance.

Given the size of the markets represented by the four clubs and their heavy rotation on the MLB TV dial, the iffy play should be giving the networks fits. With a combined reach of 16.2 million TV homes, New York, L.A. and Boston hold sway over 13.1% of the U.S. TV universe; to date, the four teams have appeared in 39 of 61 nationally televised MLB games, which represents 64% of the total freight. And still, the slimmed-down run times have kept fans tuning in. The Yanks, Sox, Dodgers and Mets have appeared in nine of the season’s 10 most-watched games, with the sole outlier being ESPN’s Opening Day showdown between the White Sox and Astros. If you’re keeping score, that game now stands at No. 10.

If baseball’s faster pace has helped offset some of the discontent in the major markets, imagine how the TV numbers would look if Shohei Ohtani and the Angels were given their due. We’re halfway through the 2023 campaign and the not-of-this-world pitcher/slugger hasn’t been featured once on either Fox or ESPN.

What Ohtani is doing right now must be seen to be believed, and even then it’s hard to credit the evidence of one’s own eyes. On Tuesday night, the dual threat became the first MLB player to reach base four times, hit two homers and strike out 10 batters in a single game since 1890. He’s batting .309, with a league-leading 28 dingers and a second-best 64 RBIs. On the mound, he’s 7-3, with an ERA of 3.02, and on pace for 254 strikeouts. At the risk of engaging in rank hyperbole, this guy should probably be on big-time TV every once in a while. (The Angels are set to make their first ESPN appearance on July 16, while Fox won’t have its first crack at the Ohtani experience until Aug. 12.)

If fans in the nation’s most baseball-crazed precincts have been understandably discouraged by the play of their hometown nine, that discontent isn’t showing up in the ratings—or the ballpark receipts. As we head into the All-Star Break, MLB attendance is up at 21 of the league’s 30 venues, and year-over-year increases in turnstile spins are tracking at +8%. In spite of the malaise hanging over the Big Apple, the Yanks (+11%) and Mets (+15%) have managed to lure more fannies into the seats, while attendance at Dodger Stadium and Fenway Park is effectively flat.

A turnaround in New York and L.A. will only serve to drive the numbers up even further. Like the man with 10 rings said, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. Witness the Braves’ historic turnaround in 2021, or the Yankees’ 1978 run, which saw them emerge from the All-Star break primed to whittle away a 14-game Sox lead, which in turn propelled them to another World Series win over the Dodgers. If Domingo Germán can pitch a no-hitter, anything’s possible.

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