World Series TV Preview: MLB Ratings Fighting Geography, History

·9 min read

“It is designed to break your heart,” A. Bartlett Giamatti famously said of baseball, noting that after the delirium of summer fades, the game “stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” If it’s next to impossible to imagine Rob Manfred expressing a similar sentiment, that’s in part because he grew up a Yankees fan; Giamatti’s musings were simply the sort of thing that might occur to just about anyone who’s ever braved the damp of a no-hope Fenway Park on a cold October night.

In the wake of 2004 and the two titles that followed that breakthrough season, Giamatti’s BoSox reveries now seem a bit precious; if nothing else, it’s impossible to square the lovable losers of yesteryear with John Henry’s $4.8 billion colossus. (None of which is to undermine the psychic toll of 86 years of futility. It’s no coincidence that New England is the birthplace of Zoloft.) For all that, as it gears up for its 24th World Series, Fox could probably use a few belts of baseball’s self-mythologizing schmaltz.

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Other than a few quotidian factors (market size, duration), the promise of watching history unfold is the one sure thing that can make a whole bunch of Americans forget that baseball is a regional sport. For example, when the Cubs in 2016 collectively thumbed their noses at the cultish imprecations of a lunatic saloon keeper and his pet goat, the TV turnout for Game 7 (40 million viewers) marked a 25-year high for MLB. Per Nielsen, 37% of all TVs in use at the time were tuned in for Chicago’s 8-7 clincher over Cleveland, because it’s not every day that you get to watch something happen for the first time in 108 years.

And if the Cards had made more of an effort 17 years ago, there’s no telling how many people might have tuned in for a maxed-out Boston-St. Louis World Series—certainly even more than the staggering 25.4 million viewers (on average) that tuned into the Sox’s four-game demolition of the insipid “Curse of the Bambino.”

Of course, we’re not going to see much in the way of history when the World Series gets underway later tonight. This will be Houston’s third appearance in the Fall Classic in the last five years, and while Atlanta is making its first trip since the Yankees swept the club in 1999, that’s hardly a geologic expanse of time when compared to the Mariners’ 45-year drought, or the Pirates’ 42-season hiatus. The Brewers’ lone World Series bid was way back in 1982, one year before the Orioles last punched their ticket, and it’s been three decades since the last time the Twins muscled their way into the title tilt.

As it happens, the 1991 Series was one of the most closely contested in history, as four of the seven games were decided via walk-off hits and three went to extra innings. Minnesota closed out the series in the old Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, as Jack Morris shut out Atlanta with a marathon 126-pitch performance and Gene Larkin drove in the game’s lone run in the bottom of the 10th. CBS’ broadcast of Game 7 still stands as the fifth most-watched baseball game of all time and the last MLB outing to deliver north of 50 million TV viewers.

If the Atlanta-Houston pairing wasn’t on Fox’s wish list—every possible permutation is a runner-up to the dream of a Yankees-Dodgers showdown that goes the full seven, but a stretched-out Boston-L.A. set would have been an easy pitch for advertisers—the series needn’t necessarily prove to be an outright ratings disaster. For one thing, Houston has a habit of taking the scenic route, as was demonstrated by the team’s most recent trips to the dance in 2019 and 2017.

As far as recent history is concerned, Fox has had a lot of luck in the series-duration department. Five of the last 10 series have gone seven games, and two others were decided in six. Over the same period, the network had to endure just one sweep, and the Giants’ accelerated dismantling of the Tigers now stands as the second least-observed Fall Classic on the books, with an average draw of 12.6 million viewers and a 7.6 household rating. (You can probably guess which series occupies the lowest rung of the Nielsen ladder. Hint: The only people in the stands were made out of cardboard.)

While the absolute ratings are no longer as staggering as they were back in the 1970s and 1980s, a Game 7 will scare up an NFL-sized audience. When the Nationals beat the Astros in 2019, the final game drew 23 million viewers, just shy of the 23.8 million viewers Fox averaged that same month during its two national America’s Game of the Week windows. Two years earlier, when the Astros secured the title with a 5-1 victory over the Dodgers, Fox averaged 28.2 million viewers, a delivery which surpassed each of the network’s regular-season NFL broadcasts and ranked 10th among the most-watched programs of 2017.

Naturally, an increase in the number of games required to crown a new champion translates to bonus ad sales revenue; two years ago, when the Astros and Nationals went the full seven, Fox booked some $149 million in commercial dough. As furnished by Standard Media Index, those agency-derived estimates reflect a moderate reduction in overall dollar volume as a direct result of Fox providing ADUs, or audience deficiency units, to some of its bigger MLB advertisers. Meanwhile, the closer Fox gets to airing November baseball, the higher its in-game asking price. The average unit cost for a 30-second spot in the maxed-out 2019 series worked out to around $329,700 a pop; costlier still are the various booth reads, integrations and isolated split-screen ads snapped up by the likes of Allstate, Taco Bell and T-Mobile.

On paper, the two clubs are a nifty synthesis of irresistible force and immovable object, as both are as stingy about giving up runs as they are proficient at scoring them. Houston was the top run-producer in the American League and coughed up the third-fewest scores, while Atlanta was the third most profligate scorer in the NL and gave up the fourth-fewest runs. The routes that brought the teams to this juncture couldn’t be less divergent—Atlanta, which played sub-.500 ball until August, outlasted the fearsome 106-win Dodgers in the NLCS, while Houston merrily bashed its way through a schizoid ALCS against a surprising Boston team. After going up 25 runs in the first three games, the Astros limited the Red Sox to just three scores in the back half of the series, while plating 23 of their own.

If Fox this fall is blessed with yet another Game 7, the usual football-sized crowd will show up for the denouement. The trouble will be getting fans in the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast to tune in for the early games. In a World Series first, both teams hail from the South, and while that’s not likely to work in Fox’s favor—baseball’s inherent provincialism demands that at least one club repping the Boston-New York-Philly-Washington megalopolis be included in the fall festivities, lest the region’s 19.7 million TV households keep their sets switched off for the duration—Atlanta and Houston are both top-10 markets.

Whether all that many people beyond those markets decide to tune in is another story. Atlanta may have greater crossover appeal than Houston; as much as no one north of the Chattahoochee ever bought into Ted Turner’s whole “America’s Team” thing, the Braves remain hugely popular in the Southeast. Turner’s Superstation WTBS not only piped his club into the homes of cable subscribers in baseball-starved areas throughout Alabama, Mississippi, the Carolinas and Tennessee, but it also foisted Braves games into supersaturated northern markets like Boston, Chicago and New York.

The Astros, meanwhile, don’t tend to move the ratings needle much outside of the Lone Star State, and to say that the 2017 sign-stealing adventure hasn’t exactly endeared the team to a national audience is to traffic in understatement. It’s not as if anyone with a discerning mind actually thinks that Houston is the only club that’s ever cheated (and if you believe that, you probably think the 1919 Chicago White Sox were an outlier, a bad apple in a bushel of moral probity, in which case: LOL), it’s that their Oscar the Grouch methods were so knuckle-draggingly crude that even the 1951 Giants would have rejected them on principle. Either way, we’re never going to hear the end of it.

Again, both teams are tremendously popular in their home environs, as the Braves were baseball’s second-biggest ballpark draw behind the Dodgers, while the Astros ranked fifth among all MLB clubs in terms of their local RSN ratings. Little of that’s going to click with the nation at large. Per Nielsen, while the deciding game of the Braves-Dodgers NLCS averaged a more-than-respectable 6.95 million viewers on TBS, making it the second most-watched postseason telecast of 2021, it also trailed the Yankees-Red Sox AL Wild Card Game by some 741,000 viewers. For baseball, there are only so many avenues to outsized ratings deliveries, and they pretty much all involve the northern stretch of Interstate 95’s Funny Accent Corridor.

If the Braves and Astros can conspire to give us great baseball, the kind that doesn’t necessarily require four hours of pitching changes and replay reviews, maybe more Americans will come around to this matchup. The odds, though, are not in Fox’s favor. On Saturday night, Game 4 will go head-to-head with SEC (Ole Miss at Auburn, on ESPN) and Big Ten football (Penn State at Ohio State, on ABC). A Game 5 would be made to contend with not only Halloween’s canonically depressed TV usage, but also a Sunday Night Football game featuring the Dallas Cowboys.

Everyone involved will have their work cut out for them; glass-half-full, at least there’s no way Fox will fail to out-deliver the record lows of last season’s pandemic-blighted series. Glass-even-more-full, Fox is now making such a killing on its NFL inventory that it can weather a disappointing World Series.

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