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.

And That Happened: Thursday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Cubs 5, Brewers 3: An absolute dagger of a loss for the Brewers. Chicago took a 2-0 lead early and Milwaukee fought back to take a 3-2 lead in the eighth. In the ninth Ian Happ reached on a grounder on which he should have been out — no error was called, Jeremy Jeffress just couldn’t get to the bag in time — and then Javier Baez tied things up singling Happ in with two outs. In the 10th, Kris Bryant hit a two-run homer on a high fastball that probably didn’t do everything Oliver Drake wanted it to do. Wade Davis got the final five outs of the game, in the ninth and tenth, striking out four Brewers. Chicago is now four and a half games ahead of the Brewers in the Central. Milwaukee will have to win the final three games of this series to have any shot at the division. They do remain only one back in the Wild Card, however, because Colorado keeps losing.

Dodgers 5, Phillies 4: Philly took a 4-2 lead thanks to rookie sensations Nick Williams and Rhys Hoskins, but old men Curtis Granderson and Andre Ethier — still alive! who knew?! — homered in the six than seventh innings, respectively, to tie it up. The Dodgers’ own rookie sensation Cody Bellinger drove in the eventual winning run with a groundout in the seventh. With that win the Dodgers clinch at least a tie for the NL West title. They can pop champagne corks with either a win tonight or a Dbacks loss. Bad news though: Justin Turner got a bruised thumb when he was hit by a pitch from Mark Leiter Jr. in the first. X-rays were negative and he’s day-to-day, but that kind of thing can linger.

Indians 4, Angels 1: Francisco Lindor hit a three-run homer in the fifth to break a 1-1 tie and the Indians win yet again. That’s 27 of 28 now. They’re only a game behind the Dodgers for the best record in baseball which, as we’ve noted recently, matters now that home field in the World Series is determined by non-stupid means.

Orioles 3, Rays 1: Gabriel Ynoa — who, apropos of nothing, has one of the more satisfying last names to both read and pronounce in all of baseball — tossed eight innings of five-hit, one-run ball. Manny Machado hit a two-run homer and Trey Mancini knocked in a run, both coming in the first innings, for all of Baltimore’s scoring. Tampa Bay threatened in the ninth. It wasn’t anywhere near as good a threat as the one Kim Jong Un issued to Trump yesterday — really, all politics aside, that thing reads fantastically — so the O’s were able to extinguish the fire.

Royals 1, Blue Jays 0: Jason Vargas and four relievers allowed two hits and no runs to beat J.A. Happ and three relievers who allowed eight hits and one run. Melky Cabrera‘s third inning RBI single was the game’s only scoring. Can you imagine what any pitcher from before, say, 1980, must think about a 1-0 game featuring a two-hit shutout that required nine pitchers?

Twins 12, Tigers 1: The Twins had been on a mini-skid before last night, but the Tigers pitching staff will always cure what ails ya. Joe Mauer and Jorge Polanco had three hits each and four different Twins batters knocked in two runs. The Twins now have a two and a half game lead for the second Wild Card with ten days left in the season.

Cardinals 8, Reds 5: Scott Schebler hit two homers for the Reds but it was not enough to overcome the Cards. Dexter Fowler had three hits and drove in two. He was 7-for-13 with two home runs and six RBI in the three-game series, swept by St. Louis. The Cards, who were swept by the Cubs last weekend, are still alive for the Wild Card, though, sitting a game and a half back of Colorado and a half game back of Milwaukee.

Braves 3, Nationals 2: R.A. Dickey allowed two runs over eight innings to pick up his 10th win on the year. After the game he said, “I’d be lying to say I didn’t have some emotions about it. This could be my last start ever at a home venue.” So there’s a decent chance he retires after the season. Part of me hopes he doesn’t — knuckleballers can and should pitch forever and he does have a team option the Braves are likely to pick up for 2018 — but he’s got kids and stuff and it’d be totally understandable if he decided he was done.

White Sox 3, Astros 1: White Sox starter Carson Fulmer lasted one third of an inning before leaving with a blister so seven relievers covered the rest of the game, allowing only one run to the best offense in baseball. Dallas Keuchel walked in one run and allowed another to score on a double play to earn the loss. Tim Anderson hit an insurance home run in the eighth.

Rangers 4, Mariners 2: Cole Hamels allowed only one run over eight innings pitched and was backed by Adrian Beltre and Shin-Soo Choo homers and a Carlos Gomez two-run double. The Mariners have been part of the Wild Card conversation for much of the season but now they’re closer to last place in the AL West (4.5 games) than they are to the second Wild Card (5 games).

Padres 3, Rockies 0: Clayton Richard, fresh off of his two-year contract extension, tamed the Rockies, shutting them out for seven and a third, scattering seven hits. Christian Villanueva homered and drove in two. The Rockies have dropped four straight and have the Brewers and Cards breathing down their necks for the second Wild Card.

Padres, Mariners join list of teams to extend netting

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The Reds announced earlier that they plan to extend the protective netting at Great American Ball Park in time for Opening Day next season. You can add the Padres and Mariners to what will surely be a growing list.

A young fan was struck in the face by a foul ball at Yankee Stadium on Wednesday, which gave new life to the netting debate. Some fans and media types think Major League Baseball is not doing enough to protect fans. While Major League Baseball has issued guidelines for protective netting, it is ultimately up to the teams to decide just how much netting to use.