baseball grass

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.

Video: Bryce Harper launches a homer into the upper deck

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 24: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals looks on against the New York Mets at Nationals Park on May 24, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images
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Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper has had a tough month of May. Opposing pitchers have become increasingly unwilling to throw hittable pitches in the strike zone for him, and he’s had trouble adjusting. Entering Thursday’s action, Harper was hitting .194/.454/.306 with two home runs in 97 plate appearances this month. 31 of those plate appearances ended in a walk, nine intentionally.

Harper finally got a pitch to hit in the sixth inning against Cardinals starter Mike Leake. Leake threw a 1-1 curve and Harper promptly launched into the upper deck at Nationals Park. It’s Harper’s 12th homer of the year.

Jackie Bradley, Jr.’s hitting streak ends at 29 games

BOSTON, MA - MAY 25:  Blake Swihart #23 of the Boston Red Sox congratulates Jackie Bradley Jr. #25 after he scored a run against the Colorado Rockies  during the fifth inning at Fenway Park on May 25, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
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Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley, Jr. was unable to continue his hitting streak on Thursday night, going 0-for-4 out of the leadoff spot against the Rockies in an 8-2 loss. He hit a deep fly ball to right field in the first inning, missing a home run by a few feet. He hit another deep drive in the fifth, but it was caught in front of the wall in center field at Fenway Park by Charlie Blackmon. In his final at-bat, Bradley weakly grounded out on the first pitch from Jon Gray to lead off the eighth inning.

Bradley’s 29-game streak tied Johnny Damon for the fourth-longest streak in Red Sox history. Dom DiMaggio still has the longest in club history at 34 games.

Shortstop Xander Bogaerts was able to extend his hitting streak streak to 19 games. He went 1-for-3, hitting a line drive single in the first.

Softball legend Jennie Finch to manage a professional men’s baseball team

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 03:  Jennie Finch attends a press conference at Marathon Pavilion in Central Park on November 3, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Andy Kropa/Getty Images)
Andy Kropa/Getty Images
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Softball legend Jennie Finch will make history on Sunday when she will serve as a guest manager for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League. She will become the first woman to manage a men’s professional baseball team.

In the club’s announcement, GM Jamie Toole said, “We are really excited to have Jennie come out and manage the team. She is an incredible athlete and a wonderful person, and we hope our fans will enjoy seeing her in a Bluefish uniform for the day.”

Finch won the 2001 Women’s College World Series with the University of Arizona. She won the gold medal with Team USA in the 2004 Summer Olympics and silver in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Finch is only managing one game, but it’s still a positive step for inclusiveness in professional sports. Hopefully, in the future, we see more women in sportswriting, broadcasting, coaching, and front office positions.

Mike Moustakas out for the rest of the 2016 season with a torn ACL

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 21:  Mike Moustakas #8 of the Kansas City Royals hits a single in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers at Kauffman Stadium on April 21, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
Ed Zurga/Getty Images
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Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas has been placed on disabled list with a torn right ACL, the club announced on Thursday. He is expected to miss the rest of the season, per MLB.com’s Jeffrey Flanagan. Outfielder Brett Eibner has been recalled from Triple-A Omaha.

Moustakas suffered the injury colliding with teammate Alex Gordon attempting to catch a foul ball. Gordon suffered a fractured scaphoid bone, which will keep him out of action for three to four weeks.

It’s a tough break for Moustakas as he missed time earlier this month with a fractured thumb. He lands back on the DL hitting .240/.301/.500 with seven home runs and 13 RBI in 113 plate appearances.