Record-Low World Series Ratings Extend TV’s 2020 Slump But Won’t Deflate Ad Pricing

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Anthony Crupi
·7 min read
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The sports ratings squeeze hasn’t had a quantifiable impact on Fox’s World Series sales, as pricing for ad units in the Tampa Bay Rays-Los Angeles Dodgers scrap are consistent with the rates the network commanded for the opening frame of the 2019 Fall Classic.

Advertisers who bought time in Game 1 paid an average rate of about $375,000 for each 30-second spot, a figure in line with last year’s in-game costs. And while Fox’s deliveries were historically low, the current state of the TV marketplace goes a long way toward explaining why brands like GMC, Allstate, Taco Bell and T-Mobile aren’t exactly sweating out their investments in October baseball.

According to Nielsen, the Dodgers’ 8-3 win over the Rays averaged 9.2 million viewers and a 5.1 household rating, making it the least-watched, lowest-rated World Series broadcast on the books. The overall TV turnout was down 25% compared to Game 1 of last year’s Washington Nationals-Houston Astros marathon, which averaged 12.2 million viewers, and the 3.12 million adults 18-49 who tuned in Tuesday night represent a demographic nadir for MLB’s autumn showcase.

While not insignificant, the rate-of-change for Game 1’s ratings drop was nowhere near as steep as what other top-tier sports faced during their own championship tournaments. Viewership for Game 1 of the NBA Finals was down 44% compared to the analogous broadcast in 2019, which aired in its customary late-May spot. Eleven days prior to the L.A. Lakers-Miami Heat tipoff, the audience for the opening frame of the NHL Stanley Cup Final on NBC had plummeted 60%. If nothing else, baseball’s 25% decline suggests that the sports TV market is beginning to bounce back from the late-summer programming glut.

If you did skip Tuesday night’s opener, you missed Dodgers right fielder Mookie Betts effectively justifying his 12-year, $365 million contract, a performance capped by his feat of winning a free taco for every man, woman and tooth-bearing child in America. You also missed L.A. ace Clayton Kershaw sawing through the Tampa Bay lineup like a carving station attendant gliding through a roast, and a socially-distanced crowd at Globe Life Field providing a sneak peek at how stadium attendance may shake out in 2021.

When results from Fox’s streaming platforms were sprinkled into the mix, the average audience inched up to 9.48 million viewers, although that digital lift still didn’t put Game 1 over the top. Unless a subsequent game scares up even smaller numbers, Tuesday night’s broadcast will have fallen short of the previous barrel-scraper; Game 3 of 2008’s rain-soaked Philadelphia Phillies-Rays series averaged 9.84 million viewers on Fox.

If none of the above seems like an endorsement for plunking down about the same amount of cash that it would take to secure the deed to Neil Armstrong’s old house, then you’re probably not sitting on a $1.3 billion marketing budget. According to Kantar estimates, that’s what official MLB sponsor and big-time World Series backer T-Mobile spent on national TV advertising in 2019, an outlay that includes $692 million in broadcast inventory. More to the point, advertisers’ steadfast willingness to cut fat checks in the face of sports’ vertiginous ratings slide is largely a matter of proportionality; in other words, if you think the autumn baseball deliveries are in the dumps, wait ’til you see how the rest of the TV market is currently faring.

Through the first 30 days of the 2020-21 broadcast season, the primetime TV audience has shrunk 30% versus the year-ago period, as the Big Four networks are averaging just 18 million viewers per night. That’s down from the 25.8 million who tuned in during the first month of last season, when CBS, NBC, ABC and Fox had the luxury of airing a full complement of new and returning scripted series. (Sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic, production has been so delayed that the first new installments of top broadcast dramas such as NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy and NBC’s Chicagoland triptych aren’t due to arrive until mid-November. Other heavy hitters, like Fox’s top-rated scripted offering 9-1-1, won’t resurface until next year.)

In the absence of fresh scripted fare, broadcasters have had to make do with a flurry of aging competition series and cheap game-show revivals, few of which are making much headway with the all-important adults 18-49 set. Of the 21 unscripted series currently airing in broadcast prime, only four are reaching more than 1% of the advertiser-coveted demo. Meanwhile, Americans have shown almost zero interest whatsoever in the scripted spackle the networks are using to stuff the cracks until their hits return; per Nielsen, roughly 0.4% of the targeted audience has bothered to check in on this motley assemblage of repurposed streaming shows and midseason filler.

Outside of the national NFL packages and a handful of college football broadcasts, nothing that’s currently airing on network TV is coming anywhere near the World Series’ demo deliveries… and the raw numbers should only be buttressed by the commercial ratings data. Along with the overall reach advantage—on average, Game 1 quadrupled the number of impressions the general-entertainment shows have eked out since the season began—the see-it-now nature of live sports provides the nearest thing there is to a DVR-proof ad environment. While baseball is hardly immune to the time-honored commercial-avoidance techniques (fridge trips, phone-gazing, staring dumbly into the middle distance), it’s still a hell of a lot easier to rack up ad impressions in real time than it is when the content is time-shifted.

One factor that may be contributing to the ratings slide is the seemingly interminable amount of time it takes to get through nine innings of postseason baseball. Game 2 clocked in at a wearisome 3 hours and 40 minutes, which is almost exactly the same chronological investment you’d have to make if you wanted to watch the entirety of Lawrence of Arabia or fly from New York to Dallas. Agonizing bullpen strategy tends to account for a lot of the baseball bloat, although it’s not as if Fox necessarily wants to discourage the practice. On Wednesday night, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts called for three pitching changes between the second and fourth innings, and every time he sauntered out to the mound, Fox got to air a bonus commercial break. A little back-of-the-napkin ad math says Roberts’ quick hook accounted for an extra $5 million in revenue.

Barring a seven-game series, there’s probably very little Fox can do to avoid notching an unfortunate ratings record. (The bar was set in 2012, when the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers in front of a crowd of 12.6 million viewers per game.) Broadcast usage being what it is, nobody at Fox would be at all surprised if this year’s series bumps MLB’s most recent 4-0 closeout off the ratings ledger—although that’s not to say that all hope has been extinguished. The Rays’ 6-4 win on Wednesday night prevented another clean slate, and at the very least baseball won’t have to compete with tonight’s presidential debate. (The first Trump-Biden scrap, which aired on Sept. 29 across 16 broadcast and cable networks, averaged 73.1 million viewers.)

At the same time, Game 5 is slated to go toe-to-toe with NBC’s piracy-themed Bucs-Raiders broadcast, and with an average delivery of 20.9 million viewers and an 11.2 rating in its three national windows, Tom Brady’s crew is currently the NFL’s most popular draw. And should Fox be fortunate enough to host a seventh World Series game, it would air just six days before Election Day, when cable-news hysteria and a general atmosphere of delirium are all but certain to hold sway over all but the most steadfast baseball fans.

So be it—that’s why God invented makegoods. If we take away nothing else from this plague year, it’s that everything’s getting stamped with an asterisk. None of this counts, at least not in any meaningful way. Should the World Series ratings further crumble, that slump won’t factor much into next year’s pricing. Nor will anything that’s happened in 2020 have an impact on baseball’s overall valuation. In a year marked by catastrophe, nobody worth doing business with is going to hold Fox or MLB to account for trying to inch us all a little closer back toward whatever “normal” is supposed to look like.

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