It’s hard to imagine, but when Larry McPhail brought up the concept of televising baseball in 1939, it was met with utter distain by the ownership brethren of the time. Made sense, right? If people watched the games from home, why would they leave the creature comforts of their own living room to go see a ballgame in person? TV broadcasts are free. McPhail, the often times hot-headed owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers was a visionary.
So much so that he charged NBC the sum total of one television installed in the press room so that he, the press, and others could watch history in action: The first televised professional sports game aired. On August 23, 1939, NBC broadcasted the first game of a doubleheader at Ebbets Field between the Dodgers and the Reds with Red Barber announcing. MacPhail saw what others didn’t: He recognized that by televising the game he would reach farther out to new fans who had yet been tapped. At the same time, you know there was some bean counter factoring in the audience.
Fast forward to today, and television certainly is the main revenue source, both locally and nationally, for MLB. For those watching the ratings, you got the feeling that this year’s match-ups were, once again, fairly good … at least until the large markets in New York, Boston, and LA/Anaheim started to drop out of the picture. And when you dig into the numbers, that’s where MLB and parity have a bit of conflict of interest in the late rounds of the playoffs and the World Series.
As the saying goes, “You’re only as strong as your weakest link,” and so MLB has implemented revenue sharing and a luxury tax to try and stem the ever widening gap of team payroll disparity. The real key for MLB has been the Wild Card, where a large number of teams have sporting chances of making the postseason, some up until the last week of the season. There was hope for more franchises than in recent memory. Something that clubs will sure to cash in on for season ticket sales. But, would MLB and FOX been happy if the Indians had knocked off the Yankees or the Red Sox? I’ll get to that in a bit.
As mundane as the bean counting is, who watches and how many watch the World Series is a barometer for the health of the business. FOX can point to the numbers when their contract comes up at the end of next season. Advertisers use the numbers to negotiate. Has it come to the point where Chicago, with its World Series futility and sizeable market , is not enough to hold the interest of the common fan? Are we at the stage where baseball’s allure is only high when three or four of the largest markets make the postseason? What in the name of Kevin McClatchy is one to do?
For the World Series, here’s the television breakdown comparing the 2005 World Series to the 2004 World Series between the Red Sox and the Cardinals:
2005 World Series Nielson Ratings Rating 2005/2004 % +/- from 2004 Game 1 9.5/17 13.7/25 -30.7% Game 2 11.1/17 15.9/24 -30.2% Game 3 13.1/23 17.3/25 -24.2% Game 4 14.8/24 9.7/29 -24.9%
What do the numbers bear out? Welcome to the lowest rated World Series … ever. Yep, it averaged an 11.1 national rating with a 19 share, 7% lower than the previous low of 2002 between the Angels and Giants that garnered an 11.9 national rating with a 20 share.
So, the Yankees fan, and Red Sox fan says it’s about them, right? Looking deeper, the World Series lacked true star power, no personality (sans possibly A.J. Pierzynski), no sub-plots, two teams in the Central, it only lasted 4 games, and MLB and FOX’s insistence on putting games on at a time that prohibited all but the most strident insomniac from watching the on the East Coast. In other words, other than your baseball junkie/SABR member/fantasy guy, the World Series didn’t resonate with the masses. For them it’s, “Like them; hate them; had enough of them; when the Red Sox and Yankees are in the mix, I watch.”
Quite the pity … depending on how you slice the performances on either side, the games were compelling, exciting, and in the case of the last half and inning of Game 4, a great display of “Juan Uribeness.” Stamp my hand, “baseball junkie.”
So, remember … MLB likes to have your Cleveland Indians, or Seattle Mariners in the hunt at the end of the regular season. Remember, no one loves a Cinderella more than the Marlins. But, when the clock strikes 12 on your baseball season, remember MLB hopes that the Yankees and Red Sox are standing at the alter. And Mr. Nielson’s Ratinghood points out why.