Monday, November 3, 2014

3 comments Important Update: Baseball is Still Dying

No worries everyone, baseball is still dying. When the World Series was taking place, it felt like every news outlet had to prepare their readers for the imminent death of baseball with stories about how the sport is just totally dying. It's circling the drain and circling the drain hard. The "New York Times" (Slogan: "All the news that's fit to print" there's that sense of irony in discussing baseball dying while the "Times" stares dead in the face of a changing media world) takes it's turn pointing out just how dead the sport of baseball is becoming. These articles about how baseball is dying are becoming a cliche in of themselves. Baseball is a regional sport. It's why local television deals are still lucrative, but the World Series has declining ratings. In fact, as I have pointed out many, many times, nearly every top-rated show has declining ratings from 20-30 years ago. It's due to the amount of channels available. I have so many channels I don't even really know how many I have and I don't really have any special premium channels. But it's easier to get pageviews with the lazy "Baseball is dying" article than it is to write a nuanced article about why baseball isn't dying, but is declining in terms of viewer interest due to other factors. Yet in the end, baseball as a sport is still healthy.

It may be America’s national pastime, but it has never felt less national.

BOOM! Guns blazing, coming out hot. This article comes from the "New York Times," but this story has never felt more old.

On Tuesday night, the first game of the 2014 World Series drew just 12.2 million viewers to Fox, making it the lowest-rated Game 1 on record. Game 2 on Wednesday night fared somewhat better, with 12.9 million people tuning in. 

It seems to me that would have put the first game as one of the highest rated primetime shows of that week. In fact, the increase from Game 1 to Game 2 is the highest improvement from Game 1 to Game 2 in 8 years. But hey, let's not include relevant information that could show the point attempting to be proven as incorrect. Leave out relevant information in order to keep the narrative going.

For most of the last century, the start of baseball’s World Series — with its red, white and blue bunting and occasional ceremonial first pitch from the president — was always a major event. The opening game of the Fall Classic has provided some of the country’s most enduring sports memories, including Willie Mays’s over-the-shoulder basket catch (1954), Sandy Koufax’s 15-strikeout performance (1963) and Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run (1988). 

For most of the last century, there were only a limited amount of channels on television that viewers could watch. So viewers watched the World Series because of limited options. Now the World Series is going up against shows like "The Walking Dead" and premium network shows like "Boardwalk Empire" and "Homeland." Not that those shows draw massive ratings (okay, "The Walking Dead" does), but it draws viewers away from the game.

But of course, some honesty about WHY the World Series isn't a major event anymore wouldn't be fun to read. With more competition for viewers' eyes, ratings for every top-rated show have decreased. Sales of Budweiser and other "name" beers have declined because there are more options out there for beer drinkers. Ratings for radio stations have declined because of Sirius satellite radio and this example can be used for many industries where there was once limited options and this is no longer true.

But this week, more people watched “NCIS: New Orleans” and “The Big Bang Theory,” and — for that matter — “The Walking Dead,” the cable show about zombies.

I'm not sure what "The Walking Dead" being a cable show about zombies has to do with anything. Welcome to 2014. Cable television shows get great ratings. Catch up or you will fall behind.

The audience for “Sunday Night Football,” a regular season game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Denver Broncos, was almost twice that of Games 1 or 2. Even last Saturday night’s college football matchup — Florida State University versus Notre Dame — drew more viewers than either World Series game. 

Football is more popular than baseball. There is no denying this. The college football matchup was between the #2 and #5 teams in the country where both teams have historically well-represented fan bases throughout the country. Popular college football teams ranked high in the college football rankings competing against each other drew high ratings. This shouldn't be a shock.

Perhaps the most compelling statement about baseball’s relative standing among American sports fans is this:

I warn you, this isn't a compelling statement about baseball's relative standing among American sports fans. This is a statement using an outlier sporting event that happens every four years compared to two games in a yearly World Series.

Last summer’s World Cup match between the United States and Portugal drew 25 million viewers, roughly double that of the World Series opener. 

Deep sigh.

This is a World Cup match against Portugal, who has Ronaldo on their team. Ronaldo is a very, very popular soccer player and this was an important match for the United States against a very talented Portugal team. Most soccer fans from the United States were going to watch this game, while MLB has a more bisected fan base where fans of baseball wouldn't necessarily watch two teams they may not like play in the World Series. The World Cup is a national event, while the World Series is not. Not only that, but World Cup soccer matches like this only happen once every four years, so it should not come as a shock that the ratings for this soccer match were very high. It's really not a very good comparison to compare the ratings for an important World Cup match with the ratings for two World Series games. They are totally different types of sporting events and the infrequency of the World Cup (along with the hype of facing Ronaldo and Portugal) helped the United States and Portugal ratings come in at 25 million viewers.

The low ratings highlight a number of trends in the sports and media industries. Above all, perhaps, is the rise of the N.F.L. in the era of 24-hour sports television, and the growing popularity of football fantasy leagues and video games. On a more basic level, potential World Series viewers simply have more options than ever before, both in their ever-expanding cable packages and via online streaming services like Netflix.

Yep, that's the reason. I wish we could all move on now, but that's not possible. The writers still have to keep pounding in the same points rather than acknowledge trends in sports and media industries show there are more options available to television watchers. I'm not sure what fantasy football or video games have to do with baseball ratings, but I'm also not so smart that I am able to write for the "New York Times."

Unlike the N.F.L. and the N.B.A., it derives a vast majority of its revenues not from nationally televised games, but rather from those shown on regional sports networks such as the YES Network in New York and Boston-based NESN.

Yet again, this is another reason that the World Series games don't draw epic ratings. They still draw very good ratings compared to other television shows on during the week, but the ratings aren't what they used to be, and this is why. There's no need to keep beating this dead horse and pointing out that World Series ratings are down. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation behind it.

The modest viewership thus far is partly a function of the matchup: the San Francisco Giants versus the Kansas City Royals. The Royals have one of the smallest TV markets in all of Major League Baseball.

I'll remember this the next time people start bitching that the Yankees or Red Sox are in the World Series again. It seems that people don't want to watch teams like the Yankees in the World Series, but they complain when there isn't an exciting matchup in the World Series. Yankees v. Dodgers has more appeal to the casual fan.

But in 1985, the last time the Royals played for the championship — and won — the games averaged 34.5 million viewers. (That team had George Brett at third base; this one has Mike Moustakas.) World Series ratings have been in a more or less steady decline since then. The last nine years have produced the eight least watched World Series.

Writers like this that continuously point out how World Series ratings are declining even after they have pointed out two good reasons this is true irritate me. The question has been answered and any re-phrasing of "Here's how bad the ratings are" is simply re-stating the question that has been posed and answered.

In some ways, baseball has never been stronger.

And yet, two or three times per week there are "Baseball is dying because of ratings...derp" articles written. It's almost like it's more fun to write these articles than it is to simply focus on another topic due to the fact the decline in baseball ratings does make sense when all factors are taken into account.

The game has been free of labor strife for almost 20 years. Teams across the country are playing in new, taxpayer-subsidized stadiums. Attendance is robust, helped by the recent addition of two new wild-card teams to the postseason, which has kept more teams alive deeper into the fall.

This was none of Bud Selig's doing. No really, David Stern was professional sports' best commissioner for taking ready-made marketable superstars and managing to show declining ratings for the NBA Finals. Isn't it funny how it doesn't work that way? We get many, many "Baseball is dying" articles, but the ratings for the NBA Finals aren't quite what they used to be either. Of course the ratings for the NBA Finals were never what the ratings for the World Series were, so it's been a greater fall in ratings for the World Series.

A number of franchises have also recently secured lucrative, multiyear deals to have their games carried on local cable networks. The Dodgers, for instance, signed a deal with Time Warner Cable worth up to $8 billion over 25 years. In addition, franchises also share the pooled revenues from nationally televised games. Over the last 20 years, baseball’s annual revenues have grown to about $8 billion from under $2 billion.

Shhhh......this isn't about revenues. It's about ratings. Stick to the reasons baseball is dying. Who cares about revenues? Ratings are what determines if a sport is dying, not whether that sport is making enough money to stay afloat.

Both Fox and M.L.B. emphasized that the audience totals now should include viewers watching in Spanish on the Fox Deportes cable channel. That would add just under 280,000 more viewers to the Game 1 total.

Well that's no fun. Why should baseball count the viewers overseas watching the World Series games? These are foreigners. They ain't Americans. If they ain't from America, they can't count as people watching the World Series. If only there were a way to build a virtual wall around the World Series so foreigners couldn't watch the games on television.

Still, there’s no avoiding the reality that the World Series is not what it used to be.

There's no avoiding the reality that many top-rated television shows aren't what they used to be. The NFL seems to be an exception. This is probably because the NFL is insanely popular.

Stephen A. Greyser, a professor at Harvard Business School who specializes in sports management, said the late start times of the games — intended to maximize advertising revenues — did not help matters. “If the premier part of your product starts after 8 Eastern time and it’s during the week or on Sunday night, it’s really hard to develop young fans,” he said.

While I do understand this reasoning to a certain extent, the NFL has three games per week that are considered marquee games that networks pay a lot of money to broadcast and they all start after 8pm Eastern time. These games still get good ratings and the NFL doesn't seem to be losing young fans. I do agree it would be nice to start the World Series a little before 8pm, but there is always the west coast to worry about. San Francisco Giants fans probably want to watch their team play, but would be sad if the game started at 3pm or 4pm on a weekday.

This is just the first year of Fox’s agreement to televise the World Series through 2021. There is time for ratings to improve.

It sounds like they are pretty happy with the ratings. They aren't complaining and have even used the postseason as a method to improve recognition of the Fox Sports 1 brand. If FOX really wasn't happy with postseason ratings (and the ratings of the World Series) I would think they wouldn't put playoff games on Fox Sports 1. Maybe this is just an assumption I am making.

And in one sense, the series is off to a good start: It’s 1-1, which means there’s a decent chance that it could turn into a close contest, with all of the attendant drama. And presumably interest.

In another sense the series is not off to a good start. The entire sport of baseball has just died so the series is canceled.

Mike Mulvihill, the senior vice president of programs for Fox Sports, stressed that the audience size depended heavily on attention growing as the series unfolded. “At Fox we root for whichever team lost the previous game until we get to Game 7,” he said.

Wait, so more people will watch once the series becomes more interesting? What a novel train of thought.

Of the current series, he added, “The ratings are exactly where we thought they would be.” He noted that the games still tended to beat almost everything they competed with in prime time, and greatly improved the ratings for the Fox prime-time schedule. 

(Bengoodfella throws his hands in the air) Exactly! The ratings aren't good, but they beat almost everything else in primetime and they are better ratings than "Hell's Kitchen" or another FOX show. So while baseball ratings are declining, the sport is still drawing a lot of interest compared to the other prime time programming on television. Baseball ratings should be compared to other prime time programming from the year 2014 rather than being compared to World Series games from when Ronald Reagan was President of the United States.

That is especially true this year when Fox has seen its prime-time ratings for its regular schedule plummet.

Don't try to act like only FOX has had their ratings decline for the prime time schedule. It's happening to other networks as well.

The World Series has gone to seven games only once since 2002: the 2011 matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. More than 25 million people tuned in for the deciding game.

WOW! That's as many viewers as a World Cup game between the United States and Portugal! How in the heck could baseball be declining if a World Series Game 7 draws as much interest as a soccer match that takes place once every four years? No time to switch the narrative around that baseball is dying. Just move on and pretend this isn't true.

“If they split the next two games, I think the ratings will be adequate, respectable O.K.,” Mr. Pilson said. “You get to a Game 7, and if you’re lucky at that point, they will probably be pretty good.”

But baseball will still be dying though, right? Because that's the assumption that is constantly being worked under. World Series ratings are down, baseball isn't alive and (ignore the revenues!) even though a Game 7 of the World Series could match the ratings these authors are comparing the World Series ratings too, just ignore that. Baseball is dying because it doesn't get the ratings of events like a World Cup match receives...except when the World Series does draw ratings like a World Cup match of course. 


Anonymous said...

Perhaps I've gotten too cynical as I've gotten older but I can't trust the Times reporting on MLB ratings because the East Coast bias inevitably rears it's ugly head and the solution usually is let the Yankees and the Red Sox play in the World Series until the end of time and the universe as we know it.

As you pointed out it ignores several things, one being back when baseball was still America's pastime there were only 4 channels to choose from so the viewing public weren't exactly spoiled for options. There is one other factor that gets overlooked to me which is most of my friends I talk to love attending baseball games at the ballpark but rarely watch on TV because they find it to be boring on television(I'm sure Joe Buck droning on and on doesn't help. I know it nearly put me to sleep a few times this past Series.)

I think there is one major factor that always gets overlooked by the sports media which is people love sports and watching sports. But people also have lives to live. They have jobs and responsibilities to take care of. Most of us aren't lucky enough to have 3 or 4 straight hours free during the middle of the week to sit through a whole game. I know sports media loves to imagine all sports fans as unemployed fat slobs who stay in our mothers basements doing nothing else but watching sports all day but that simply isn't true. I would have loved to have watched all of Game 4 or 5 this year, for example, but I had other things to do like cook dinner for my fiance, plan a wedding, arrange travel to Minnesota for my cousins wedding, pay bills and rent, etc. It's just a fact of life. MLB doesn't seem too concerned by the ratings so why is the media?

HH said...

This can roughly be summarized as:

"One number I can easily Google seems to be getting lower. I'll create a narrative around it."

Bengoodfella said...

Anon, that's part of it as well I think. The business of life. I love going to a game, but watching it on television really doesn't excite me as much. This is especially true when watching teams that aren't my favorite team. For the NFL, those games only happen 16 times per year so it is easy to carve out time. Look at the ratings for Game 7 this year. The ratings were there. People watched.

I have two hours of television time every night where I can actually watch television without any interference of any type. Even then it happens a couple of nights and that's it. I don't have time to watch an entire baseball game, especially one that ends at 11:30pm. I am not that invested in teams that aren't mine, but I also don't complain because I love the sport. It's not dying.

HH, pretty much.