Sunday Night Football and The Walking Dead may have fought it out for ratings supremacy last week, as it seemed most of America all but forget that there was indeed a baseball playoff game on, but not to worry MLB because while you may not have been in this battle you’re a long way from being a Dead Sport Walking.
Last Sunday I was in a Bay Area sports bar with my two buddies Lou and Larry fresh off watching The Silver and Black Oakland Raiders the favorite team of Lou, one my oldest and best friends, drop a heartbreaker to the San Diego Chargers. As we sat drinking our beer watching the Giants Eagles game I posed a simple question, to which I already knew what the response would be. Who do you think will win the rating battle tonight? The season premiere of the Walking Dead, The Giants Eagles game or the Cardinals Giants playoff game. Larry who is about as passionate a sports fan as anyone I know, hell he even watches soccer and as we all know nobody cares about soccer in America, but that’s a discussion for another day responded that the football game would win easy. The Walking Dead would come in second and the playoff game would be somewhere far off in the distance because as he is prone to saying baseball is a sport I once loved and now it is dying a slow death. Now to be fair he was right the baseball game which aired on Fox Sports 1 drew 4.4 million viewers far behind the roughly 17 million viewers each who tuned into watch the Walking Dead on AMC and the Giants Eagles on NBC. So I guess Larry was right baseball is a dying sport after all the television ratings proved him right, except for one little thing. Larry, as he used to me telling him, is dead wrong and baseball is not only not dying, baseball is thriving albeit in a different way than he and I were used to growing up.
Don’t get me wrong baseball is not perfect it does have a plethora of things wrong with it as Larry has pointed out to me on several… no several million occasions. There is a push button mentality with managers today that leads to an overabundance of pitching changes which in turn lengthens the game from a manageable 2 hours and 35 minutes 30 years ago to an unwieldy 3 hours and 2 minutes this past season, the longest on record. The pace of the game is not appealing to today’s youth. Take for example Derek Jeter. Everybody including Red Sox fans loved and respected the Captain and rightfully so for the way he played the game, but in his career there wasn’t a pitch taken or ball fouled off that Jeter didn’t feel the need to step out of the batter box to adjust himself. Not one! Pitchers routinely stare in at the catcher and then seemingly go into some sort of mental trance to help them forget they just walked the last two batters and have gone 3-0 on the guy at the plate. Likely because the umpire’s strike zone today is vastly different from the one the guy yesterday had. World Series games are all prime time starts, taking the sport’s most important event away from future generations who will be sleep by the third inning. Plus first pitch in those games doesn’t occur until we’ve had the obligatory 30 minute pre-game show designed to squeeze in the maximum number of commercials, which drives Lou over the edge but again that’s a topic for another day. All that aside and despite baseball’s multiple attempts to commit suicide, baseball is alive and well.
We will never see the television ratings that baseball once enjoyed. Much to the chagrin of Larry and all those who think like him, this fall half the families in America will not gather around their television sets with hot cocoa on a crisp fall night to watch the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas Royals compete for the title. There are numerous reasons for this and we will explore them later on but what is important is that baseball has figured out how to survive just fine despite them. So why has baseball lost its grip on huge ratings nationally? Well the room that baseball and the rest of the entertainment field reside in today is more crowded than ever. On demand programming enables people to watch their favorite shows at any time and any day, including when the baseball game is on and streaming options such as Netflix and internet options such as Hula and YouTube provide alternative sources of entertainment. More and more cable networks are catering to niche audiences and producing high quality original series with content that could only have been dreamt about on network television. Baseball simply doesn’t have the room to itself. Think about it just 5 years ago would you have even fathomed that a show on basic cable about a post apolycatic world over run with zombies would even be in the conversation with a Sunday night football game on network television. Additionally, this trend is not exclusive to baseball since the mid- 90s ratings for both the World Series and NBA finals have declined steadily. The NHL has seen a slight uptick since NBC started broadcasting the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006, but really it had nowhere to go but up.
So why is football a national television juggernaut? Well it does have a few built-in advantages the others don’t. Let’s look at a couple of them.
First, football unlike other sports is event programming. Its 16 game regular season schedule lends itself to being must see television. Every game takes on an importance that simply doesn’t exist in the other big four regular seasons. A week six game between two 3-3 baseball teams is going to have much more at stake and be a much easier sell than an early June game between two 30-30 baseball teams. Likewise the NFL playoffs, with its one and done format, generates excitement and produce the type of immediate result, without the long term commitment that a seven game series requires, that today’s viewer craves.
Second is the elephant in the room that the NFL doesn’t want to acknowledge and that’s betting. Betting on football dwarfs betting on any other of the other major sports in America. In 2011 according to the Nevada Gaming Commission, $3.2 billion was wagered in sports bets in the state’s casinos. Of that amount, $1.34 billion or 41 percent was handled just for football. Outside of Nevada the numbers are much bigger. The National Gambling Impact Study Commission estimates that $380 billion is wagered a year on football through offshore accounts and illegal betting. According to Greg Finn, managing director at WagerMinds, a sports betting and handicapping website
“The NFL knows a meaningful part of their fan base is interested because they can bet on the games. And if they can’t they would be far less interested in getting tickets, going to games and buying merchandise,”
Hand in hand with betting is the explosion of fantasy football, yet another thing that my dear friend Larry finds evil. According to research from the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA), 33 million Americans participate in Fantasy Football and the industry adds about 2 million new players every year. And while fantasy football is a fun social endeavor for most it also is a big money endeavor as well. The average entry fee to a league is only $70, which divides into about $4 per NFL game, but the FSTA found that $1.18 billion changes hands between players through pools each year. And this equates to television viewership as pointed out by Paul Charchian, president of the FSTA,
“Fantasy sports players will watch twice as much of their sport as other self-identified sports fans. A fan of the Jets will just watch a Jets game but a fantasy player will watch the Jets game and then switch over to other games. And he will watch the Thursday night game, which no one seems to watch.”
You can read more about the NFL’s Shadow Economy of Gambling and Fantasy Football is a Multibillion Dollar Business at the Daily Beast by following the link below.
Baseball despite not having either of these advantages which allows football to maintain a vice grip as the “national past time” has managed to remain strong both at the box office and on the regional level. The nine seasons between 2004 and 2012 produced the nine best-attended seasons in the history of Major League Baseball, including four successive record-breaking seasons from 2004-2007. While both 2013 and 2014 were down 1.06% and 0.4% respectively from the prior year it is somewhat unreasonable to expect any sport to continually break its own attendance records. Additionally down is relative as 2013 and 2014 represented the 6th and 7th highest attendance figures in Major league history. Some of the highlights from 2014 include:
- Twelve Clubs surpassed the 2.5-million mark, including five that topped the three-million mark.
- The Pittsburgh Pirates established a single-season attendance record of 2,442,564 in 2014, breaking the previous mark of 2,436,139 set during the first season at PNC Park in 2001. The Pirates also posted 23 sellouts during the season, tying the club record set in 2013.
- The San Francisco Giants, who sold out every game this season, ended the 2014 season with 327 consecutive sell-outs, dating back to October 1, 2010, for the longest active streak in the Majors.
- The Detroit Tigers, who recorded 27 sellouts during the 2014 season, posted the fifth largest total attendance (2,917,209) in the 114-year history of the franchise.
- The Kansas City Royals posted their highest attendance (1,956,482) since 1991.
- The Seattle Mariners drew 2,063,622, eclipsing the two-million mark for the first time since 2010. The club’s attendance represented a Major League-best 17 percent increase over 2013.
- The Oakland Athletics had an attendance of 2,003,628 in 2014, surpassing the two-million mark for the first time since 2005 (2,109,118).
- The Houston Astros drew 1,751,829 fans in 2014, representing an attendance increase for the second consecutive season.
That’s positive news from coast to coast, in cities with booming economies and those with struggling economies, cities with playoff teams and cities with teams under .500. Some of this success in attracting fans out to the ball park can be attributed to baseball being open to reinventing itself. No better example of that is the addition of the wildcard system. Like it or hate it no one can deny its success in ensuring that teams which otherwise would have had no hope of playing meaningful games in September are kept alive each year deeper into the season and as a result their fan bases remain energized. Now I know there are those from the old school of thinking like my buddy Larry who hates the concept of the wildcard saying it destroys the sanctity of the 162 game schedule and removes any chance for a real pennant races not the fake chase for the final wildcard spot but you know, THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT – THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT, kind. But I dare you to tell a long-suffering fan of the Kansas City Royals currently basking in the euphoria of their team’s current playoff run and first World Series appearance since 1985 that the wildcard cheapens baseball. Than just walk away with your head bowed as they laugh their asses off at you.
Speaking of the Royals I can’t wait for game one of the World Series those charming, gritty, players. The Cinderella story, it’s must see television…Wait no, let’s be real I will not be watching it after all it may conflict with a football game or a Walking Dead episode or my latest attempt to get past whatever Candy Crush level I’m currently at. And I’m sure millions of other Americans feel the same way. After all who cares about the Royals or the Giants outside of KC and San Francisco? But you know what, that’s OK because once again baseball will be just fine. Because unlike the built-in advantages we discussed earlier that makes football more appealing to a nationwide audience baseball is just crushing it on a regional level and I do mean crushing it.
In a piece for Forbes.com last August, Maury Brown notes that Major League Baseball is absolutely thriving in local ratings. http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2014/08/05/mlb-telecasts-on-regional-sports-networks-dominate-prime-time-television/
Check this out:
According to the information from Nielsen, of the 29 U.S.-based clubs in the league, 12 of them are the #1-rated programming in prime time since the start of the season in their home markets, beating both broadcast and cable competition. These teams include the Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Milwaukee Brewers, Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Seattle Mariners, Boston Red Sox, San Francisco Giants, and Arizona Diamondbacks.
Another 7 teams rank in the top three in local prime time TV ratings on their respective RSNs, including the Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres, and [Colorado] Rockies.
Brown further reports that the Cubs, White Sox, Rangers, Angels, Marlins, Mets, A’s and Nationals rank in the top nine in local primetime programming.
As CBS Sportsline commented
That leaves only the Dodgers and Astros who aren’t doing well — and with the Blue Jays being in Canada, Nielson doesn’t have the information — which is hardly surprising with the respective fights between the clubs and local TV carriers. So, basically, the only two teams in America not doing well in ratings aren’t doing well because people don’t have the option to watch.
And when you add up those numbers baseball, the dying sport is not that far behind the NFL aka “King of The World” in total revenue. According to Forbes Magazine in October of this year http://www.forbes.com/sites/maurybrown/2014/10/08/baseball-is-dying-dont-be-stupid/
Last season MLB saw gross revenues of over $8 billion, and the expectation is it will reach $10 billion within a year or two. The reason for this goes back to attendance, and television. At the local level, teams are individually seeing lucrative broadcast deals, while the league sees national broadcast revenue from ESPN, TBS, and FOX at $1.5 billion annually. On top of that, MLB’s digital media company MLB Advanced Media expects to see revenues hit $1 billion annually in the very near future (see The Biggest Media Company You’ve Never Heard Of). That means MLB could soon catch the National Football, who saw approx. $10 billion in gross revenues last season.
Ah but as my friend Larry pointed out to me in a recent text message response to an article I forwarded him about the health of baseball – what about the youth? To quote he wondered if the myopic sportswriter thinks there’s any reason for concern that young people watch football and basketball and even soccer (yes he really said soccer) but not baseball anymore. I could almost hear him saying in his best sportscaster’s James Brown voice – The young Carl. What about the young? Well I hate to tell Larry the young just aren’t as interested in football or sports in general as much as he and I are. Today’s youth have way too many other things going on to keep them entertained. Brian Steinberg, Senior TV Editor for Variety wrote in September:
Younger viewers are walking away from broadcasts of its games.
The average audience between 18 and 49 for NFL broadcasts across CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN and the NFL Network has declined by about 10.6% over the last four seasons, according to Nielsen data prepared by Horizon Media, to about 7.7 million in 2013 from about 8.62 million in 2010. Meantime, male viewers between 18 and 24 watching the sport have also fallen off, tumbling about 5.3% in the same time period, to approximately 847,000 in 2013 from 894,000 in 2010.
Even as its overall viewership rises, however, the NFL audience has gotten older. Consider that in 2006, the median age for an NFL viewer was 45.8. By 2012, the median had risen to 47.1; in 2013, it was 48.4.
So there you have it strong attendance, regional television dominance, increasing revenue all in all baseball is in pretty good shape all around. Last Sunday may have belonged to the Walking Dead but baseball is far from being The Dead Sport Walking. I expect a harshly worded e-mail from Larry once he reads this.