Why do baseball ratings continue to trend downward?

Hunter Martin

Matchups aren't as good, but why does Fox's baseball coverage keep dropping in the ratings despite a move to primetime?

Major League Baseball is a week into a prime part of its calendar because, for the next two months, there are no regular season games in any of the big four professional leagues besides baseball. Fans in many cities have an MLS option or a WNBA team, but none are a real threat on television. So why does it seem like baseball is kind of lost in the midst of a period when it's the only real sporting event you can talk about?

Despite the emergence of new stars in big markets like Yasiel Puig and Matt Harvey, the exciting reemergence of the Pittsburgh Pirates and competitive teams in markets like Boston, Dallas, Detroit, St. Louis, Washington, Atlanta, Denver and San Francisco ... baseball on TV feels like the same old same old this year.

It shows up in the numbers, too. The Home Run Derby and the All-Star Game are, undeservedly, likely to be the most-watched baseball events of the season until at least the League Championship Series. Despite continued commitment to primetime games, ratings for Fox Saturday Baseball appear headed for another all-time low after spending five straight weeks getting whipped head-to-head by playoff hockey. Ratings finally picked up a bit, though, drawing a 2.5 vs. a 2.0 last week against Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final.

ESPN's ratings remain unremarkable, though Sunday Night Baseball perked up a bit for Yankees-Orioles on the most recent Sunday night telecast. It scored a 1.6 overnight rating, barely beating its lead-in, the Brazil-Spain final at the Confederations Cup, which garnered a 1.5. We can talk all day and night about how it's the final of an international soccer tournament vs. baseball in June, but we were not having this conversation 10 years ago.

We're specifically not having this conversation nine years ago, because that's the last time MLB on Fox ratings were going up consistently year-to-year. Let's take a look at baseball's year-to-year numbers on broadcast for the past decade, via Sports Business Journal. Aside from 2011, you can obviously see a trend.

Year Viewers
2012 2.50 million
2011 2.74 million
2010 2.70 million
2009 2.70 million
2008 2.90 million
2007 3.31 million
2006 3.34 million
2005 3.60 million
2004 3.44 million
2003 3.37 million

As for ESPN, despite a slight uptick in 2011 (much like Fox's), ratings have dropped for Sunday Night Baseball five of the last six seasons, falling below two million viewers in 2012.

2012 1.78 million
2011 2.29 million
2010 2.17 million
2009 2.45 million
2008 2.61 million
2007 2.75 million

Basically, baseball's "Game of the Week" broadcasts have been hitting record lows, with only broadcast and cable packages of hockey and college hoops having smaller audiences among the traditionally major sports. MLB is also coming off the lowest-rated, least-viewed World Series in history. The NLCS between the Cardinals and Giants was the lowest-rated LCS ever on broadcast television. It isn't improving, either" 10 of Fox's 12 MLB broadcast windows this season have drawn lower ratings than the comparable telecast the year before.

Why is this all happening? And, while we must acknowledge the greatness of MLB.tv (and I do, whether publicly or privately every day), this is going to stick to TV-centric commentary. I don't consider it a problem of bad production, certainly. ESPN puts on a first-class baseball broadcast. TBS and Fox do fine jobs as well. MLB Network is neck-and-neck with NFL Network as the best of the league-owned stations. What's going wrong here? Some immediate theories:

Lack of big-market matchups. A change that MLB made this year: they moved all of the "crosstown showdown" series' to mid-week. That means Fox and ESPN (at least on Sunday night) couldn't get a look at Yankees vs. Mets, Cubs vs. White Sox, Angels vs. Dodgers, Athletics vs. Giants, Orioles vs. Nationals and (though not a crosstown series, still large) Red Sox vs. Phillies. Any one of those series could be featured on Sunday night just based on rivalry or ratings potential alone and would've likely trumped some of the big network picks this season: Cardinals vs. Dodgers, Red Sox vs. Tigers, Giants vs. Reds and Braves vs. Mets.

Baseball fans have become more tribal. For whatever reason, it appears that fans are only interested in watching their own teams these days. It's similar to what I see in hockey: ratings are large locally, but weak nationally because nobody's interested in seeing anybody else. Case in point: this most recent Saturday's Yankees-Orioles blowout drew just a 0.1 rating in Denver, which is an MLB market. That equaled the following day's ratings of the NHL Draft on NBC Sports Network in the market. Even Boston, which has long held an obsession with the Yankees, no longer seems too concerned with the evil empire as New York-Baltimore hit just an 0.8 rating. Put on the Rockies and Red Sox, though and those numbers shoot through the roof.

Ratings Drops in New York. It doesn't help that the country's biggest market, and one with two teams that can drive national conversation, aren't doing very well. Yankees ratings were down over 38 percent in mid-May, having dropped from a 3.9 to a 2.5.

Too many nationally televised games. Kind of an obvious one: if you saturate the market, demand will drop. ESPN is on Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays, while Fox sticks to Saturday. Meanwhile, MLB Network fills pretty much every other night of the week. This is a great example of how far television has come and of the limitless options for the baseball nerds among us ... but the fact is, if I miss the Rangers game on Monday, I'll probably have a chance to see them again within the next week.

Saturday is a TV wasteland, while Sunday is a haven for high-rated scripted shows. ESPN's Sunday night ratings can probably be attributed to the fact that baseball isn't the only good thing on Sunday nights in the summer anymore. Just this weekend, Showtime was premiering the final season of its hit drama Dexter which led in to big buzz show Ray Donovan. Mad Men and Game of Thrones just ended their seasons and regularly crushed baseball in the ratings and now True Blood is doing the same. The Newsroom and Breaking Bad are coming later this summer and will likely do the same as well.

Meanwhile, nobody really watches anything on Saturdays anymore. Only college football seems to take any ratings hold. The only original programs that air on the night at any point during the year are football, CBS' 48 Hours and Saturday Night Live. Baseball isn't exactly carving out a niche by being on Saturdays.

The sport is still weaning itself off the Red Sox/Yankees boon of the early 00's. MLB's TV partners are doing a little better job on this, but they are still convinced that Yankees games are the way to go. Even with the team's ratings dipping and the on-the-field product dropping into fourth place, they will still make more TV appearances this year on national networks than any other. The NL West-leading Arizona Diamondbacks will make just their second ESPN appearance all season on Wednesday night (against the Mets, naturally). I had to read it three times to make sure the network's Wednesday night pick of Athletics-Pirates in a couple of weeks was real. The league, and the networks, need to find success showing the entire league. People are sick of the Yankees and Red Sox.

Baseball has become stale on television, and baseball's season doesn't really work well with it. When's the last time a game really seemed like a must-win for you, as a baseball fan? I'm a Mets fan, so perhaps I'm not helping, but the only games this year that have really felt like must-see TV are Matt Harvey's starts. The fact is, any one of these factors -- or any combination of them -- could be an explanation for bad ratings. The problem is that baseball's season is pretty much set up so that games won't have buzz until at least September, though, when they're going to get trumped by football.

The only time baseball is in the spotlight is for the playoffs and Home Run Derby/All-Star Game, events that are (despite the post-season being best-of-5 and best-of-7) largely singled-out events. They're usually the only baseball thing airing at that time and so they command attention. Fans just aren't going to get that during the regular season. A must-see pitching matchup only comes maybe a few times a month and there aren't that many hitters that you'd flip the channel to watch in the post-steroid era, either.

Playoff baseball's one-game Wild Cards were a step in the right direction from a TV standpoint. One game, winner take all, in good TV timeslots. No wonder they drew huge numbers. The fact is, baseball may have to someday rethink it's regular season to make it a more TV-friendly game. I'm not saying turn baseball into shorter seasons like basketball and hockey, but what if you cut 20 games from the season? 140 games, limited interleague play and a focus on divisional and league play.

Then -- and here's an idea that I know will drive purists crazy -- add to the post-season, which is the only time baseball commands attention of the masses. Here's where you should make it more like hockey and basketball. Six-to-eight teams per league in the post-season. It works for every other sport so why should MLB keep it down to five, with one of those teams getting only a single playoff game? That means 16 franchises selling out playoff games, sixteen local markets (as I've said, baseball's become tribal) propping up TV ratings, sixteen franchises -- and probably more due to increased parity -- with a reason to hope every year. The end of markets like Kansas City and Pittsburgh and Baltimore going decades without optimism will end right there. You'd probably end up with enough revenue to expand (Bienvenue, Montreal!) or fix problem markets (Oakland, Tampa Bay).

I know what I'm saying is far too radical, but you saw the numbers I posted above. We're seeing a decade-long trend of decreased interest in baseball. Attendance is down in 18 markets, and two percent overall, and ratings will get even lower as more games move to FS1 and cable next year. The caretakers of baseball need to find a way to put a jolt into it, and sooner rather than later, or else the downward trend will continue.

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