Doomsayers be damned: Baseball is healthy and ratings are strong

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ST. LOUIS — I write often about how the “Baseball is dying” people and the folks who wring their hands over playoff and World Series television ratings are either overstating their concern, are misapprehending history or are flat-out wrong. It appears, however, that those people and those folks will continue to march on with that narrative unabated.

Keith Olbermann talked about baseball’s relative national irrelevancy the other night. The website Sports Media Watch, which gets cited by many looking for a quick and dirty take on TV ratings, tends to spin things toward the dire. I presume once the overnight ratings for Game 4 are in this morning — a Game 4 which played opposite ratings juggernaut Sunday Night Football — we’ll hear a new round of all of this. It’s an evergreen story, as the news media folks say, and it’ll be trotted out every fall, I am certain.

Obviously the numbers are what they are — I haven’t seen people flat out lying about what the TV ratings say, after all — but the context and thus the relevancy of these stories are misleading in the extreme.  So, sorry class, I know you’ve heard this lecture before, but please get out your pencils and take good notes so we can be certain the curriculum actually begins to sink in:

Baseball doesn’t get the ratings it used to, but nothing gets the ratings it used to

For reasons that continue to escape me, the doomsaying about World Series television ratings is fundamentally different from the conversation being had about any other TV show’s ratings. And it’s fundamentally unfair to baseball at that. When someone talks about, say, “NCIS” or “Two and Half Men” they talk about its ratings compared to actually competing prime time shows. They don’t compare it to “All in the Family” in 1974 or “M*A*S*H” in 1980.  Yet baseball, for some reason, is always judged against games from that era as if time had not passed.

Olbermann cited an Orioles-Pirates series from the 70s. Sports Media Watch couched otherwise strong numbers for Game 2 on Saturday night as “baseball’s fifth-lowest-rated World Series game of all time.” No one talks about “NCIS” like that. But what if they did? “NCIS” was the highest-rated entertainment show in the fall of 2012. It got a 9.8 rating. In 1998, the highest rated primetime show was “E.R.” It got an 18.8.  That’s 48% higher. Indeed, if “NCIS” were on in 1998 and got the same ratings, it wouldn’t have cracked the top ten.

Where are the “NCIS is dying” stories? Nowhere, obviously, because such stories are irrelevant and would make no sense, either as a logical comparison — the show on now is not the show that was on back then — or as a business comparison. That’s because current programming is competing against current programing, not ghosts from 15, 20 or 40 years ago.

As current programming the World Series is doing just fine, thanks.

Baseball, as a television product, is not competing for eyes or ad dollars with 1979. It’s competing with programming from 2013. And as far as that goes it’s doing quite well, thank you.  In 2012 — A series which many cite as a low water mark — the World Series beat every entertainment show on the fall primetime schedule in multiple key age groups: Men 18-34, Men 18-49, Adults 18-34, and Adults 18-49. On Saturday night — the night Sports Media Watch referred to Game 2 as the “fifth lowest World Series game ever — Fox averaged a 7.4 rating for the game, which was up 21 percent over last year’s Saturday night Game 3. It drew a 37.2 rating in St. Louis. It drew a 32.4 rating in Boston.

It’s not the NFL, obviously — pro football is other-worldly in its success and is an exception to the overall rule about audiences getting smaller — but it’s not getting beat by much else, if anything, including college football (Game 2 drew better than all of the national prime time college games on Saturday combined).

In terms of total viewers, The World Series typically delivers to FOX the equivalent of an entire season of a top 10 entertainment program over the course of one week. Again, it’s not what it was back when your father was your age, but to spin its current ratings as some sort of failure takes an awful lot of work and the application of an awful lot of filters that bear no relation whatsoever to what television and advertising professionals consider important in 2013.

Whatever you think about the ratings, baseball is not dying.

Parsing ratings is one thing — it’s kind of an insidery sport, actually, that might otherwise have no consequence — but the conclusions pundits like to draw from them is another, far more ridiculous thing. We’ve talked about this a lot: the “baseball is dying” crowd. The folks who lament the fact that baseball is no longer The National Pastime.

Well, guess what: it’s not the National Pastime anymore. And Eisenhower is not the president anymore and Jack Parr isn’t the king of late night anymore and you don’t pull your beloved dog Spot around 1950s America in your Radio Flyer anymore either. I hate to break it you, kiddo, but Spot’s dead as is the world in which baseball is The National Pastime.

Eisenhower and Jack Parr are OK, though. We took them to live at a nice farm upstate where they have far more room to run around. We’ll go visit them someday!

Baseball’s status as The National Pastime is one which it would certainly love to hold on to if it could, but it can’t and hasn’t truly had it for close to 50 years. It attained it when it was the only sport of consequence and the world was a much simpler, less fragmented place. Pro football and basketball were niche sports as recently as the 1950s. The nation was much more homogenous and prone to agreeing on things then than it is now. There were fewer things to agree on in the first place.

The fragmentation of baseball’s popularity is no different than the fragmentation of the music industry, the television industry or the international economy. Not everyone listens to The Hit Parade anymore. The U.S. no longer has 50%+ of the world’s GDP. That doesn’t mean that no one listens to music and no one in American makes money anymore. It just means that we’re in a different world than we once were.  The same goes for baseball.  And when you measure baseball for what it is rather than against what it once was, it’s hard to argue that the sport is not healthy. Indeed, the sport is thriving.

  • Major League Baseball attendance for 2013 exceeded 74 million, which is the sixth highest ever. There have been 30 teams in baseball since 1998 so perhaps the relevant comparisons for attendance should focus on the past 15 years, but even then the past ten years have seen the ten highest-attended seasons in that time frame, which is a pretty good trend line, especially considering the 2008 recession from which we’re still not really recovered.
  • MLB has achieved record revenue for ten consecutive years with last year reaching $7.5 billion
  • Competitive balance, which many who like to slam baseball enjoy citing, actually favors baseball these days.  Indeed, 26 of the league’s 30 clubs have made the playoffs at least once in the last 10 years.

But don’t just take my word for baseball’s health. Take the word of the people who are actually gambling their own money on the health of the sport. In the past year, Fox, ESPN and TBS each signed new eight-year rights agreements with Major League Baseball to the tune of $12.4 billion. That’s a 100% increase over the previous rights deals. And that’s just national broadcasting. The local broadcasting — which is how most folks watch baseball — is booming too, with RSNs and other outlets shelling out insane money for the right to broadcast baseball games.

Will that last forever? Probably not. No booms do. But ESPN, Fox, Turner and the other networks are not in the business of flushing money down the toilet. They think about this stuff and they believe that baseball is healthy and a good financial bet.

So, are people ever going to stop claiming that the sky is falling?

Man, you’d hope so. But I doubt it. Baseball, for whatever reason, causes people to ignore the facts in front of their face and to go with narratives that just feel right. When it comes to all of this stuff, the “baseball is dying and no one is watching” thing is no different than the “so-and-so is a clutch hitter” and “what’s his face pitches to the score” rebop. I expect we’ll see it every fall for as long as there is baseball on television.

But, as we all know, repeating something over and over doesn’t tell us anything if what’s being repeated is simply wrong. Well, at least not anything apart from the intelligence and critical thinking skills of the folks doing the repeating.

Astros vs. Dodgers is a match made in heaven

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A lot of people who work at the league office or who take paychecks from the Fox network probably wanted to see the Yankees and the Cubs in the World Series. They won’t admit it, of course, but I suspect that many did, as the ratings for a Cubs-Yankees Series might’ve broken modern records. If they are at all disappointed by the Astros and Dodgers winning the pennant, however, they should let that go because they’ve been gifted by a wonderful matchup from a purely baseball perspective. Indeed, it’s one of the best on-paper matchups we’ve had in the Fall Classic in many years.

Before the Dodgers went on their late-August, early-September swoon, this was the potential World Series pairing most folks who know a thing or two wanted to see. At least I did, and I don’t think I was alone. It was certainly the matchup which represented the teams with the two best regular season records and storylines at the time. While Cleveland ended up winning more games than Houston did, for the first time since 1970 we have a World Series pitting two 100-win teams against each other.

Like that Orioles-Reds series in 1970, which featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and a host of other All-Stars, the Dodgers-Astros provide us with an embarrassment of big names and future Hall of Famers. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw and Astros DH/OF Carlos Beltran are destined for induction already. Astros ace Justin Verlander may very well join them, especially if his late 2017 surge is evidence of a second career peak. Houston second baseman Jose Altuve‘s first seven years and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen‘s first eight are the stuff upon which Cooperstown resumes are made as well. People will be arguing Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley‘s Hall of Fame case for years once he retires.

Youth is served as well in this matchup, with each club featuring a handful of the game’s best young players to accompany their big name veteran stars.

The Dodgers will bat their no-doubt N.L. Rookie of the Year first baseman Cody Bellinger second or third in the lineup every game. 2016 Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, who sat out the NLCS with a bad back, is expected to be activated for the Series where he’ll be the Dodgers shortstop. The Astros are actually an old team on paper — Verlander, catcher Brian McCann, starter Charlie Morton, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, outfielder Josh Reddick and DH Evan Gattis are all over 30 while Beltran is 40 — but young players are essential to their attack as well. Shortstop Carlos Correa just turned 23 and he’s one of the game’s brightest stars. Third baseman Alex Bregman, also 23, made the play that may very well have broken the Yankees’ back during Saturday night’s pennant clincher. Age aside, the Astros are the product of a major, multi-year rebuild and many of their players are making their first national splash this postseason.

Beyond just the names and resumes, though, the Dodgers and Astros represent a fantastic strategic matchup. The Dodgers attack this postseason has featured admirable plate discipline, with third baseman Justin Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and center fielder Chris Taylor all letting balls out of the zone pass them by while abusing pitches left out over the plate. Astros pitchers not named Justin Verlander, however, have lived by getting the opposition to chase bad balls. Game one starter Dallas Keuchel did this by relying on his very fast sinker. Lance McCullers pitched well starting Game 4 of the ALCS and pitched spectacularly closing out the final four innings of Game 7 mostly by virtue of his curveball, which Yankees pitchers could simply not lay off. Indeed, his final 24 pitches of Game 7 were all curves, many of them low and away. Who will give in first in this series?

On the side of things, Dodgers relievers have made a living by pumping in strikes. Particularly strikes high in the zone from Jansen and Brandon Morrow. There may be no better fastball hitter in all of baseball than Jose Altuve, however, and the team as a whole was one of the best in the bigs in dealing with gas in the zone. This was a big reason why the Astros struck out less than any team in baseball this year while simultaneously boasting the best offense in the game. The Dodgers throw strikes. The Astros make you pay when you throw them strikes. Again, something’s gotta give.

Maybe the suits in New York wanted the Yankees and Cubs. But everyone else is getting exactly what we want: a matchup of the two best teams in the game. A matchup of strength against strength. What is, from a purely baseball perspective, the best World Series we could’ve possibly hoped for.