Every year we see it: a regular season NFL game beats the crap out of a baseball playoff game in the ratings. It happened last night with Indianapolis-Washington nearly doubling the numbers of the Giants-Phillies game. It may even happen tonight with a boring Titans-Jags game facing off against the Yankees and Rangers. There are, and will continue to be, people who read a ton into this, but I think it’s kind of meaningless. Why? Because as far as the television business goes, baseball and football are different beasts.
Football is an exclusively national sport, television wise. Aside from preseason games everything is handled by the big networks. Yes, they provide regional coverage of some games on Sunday afternoons, but the Sunday night and Monday night games — and, for that matter, most of the late Sunday afternoon games — are national things. Baseball, on the other hand, is primarily regional thing until the playoffs start. There are like 90 games a week during the regular season. A handful are national broadcasts. The vast majority are on RSNs or local affiliates of one form of another, broadcasting to a limited area.
When the playoffs start, baseball is basically changing its model, and is going all-national, all the time. Fans of the participating teams are going to follow, of course, but for fans who have grown accustomed to understanding televised baseball as a vehicle through which one roots for the local nine, it’s a tall order to expect them to tune in. If football were broadcast in a pattern like this — an impossibility, I realize because of the limited number of games — you’d see a similar pattern.
While I’m sure Bud Selig would love it if baseball games got football-sized ratings, he and others in charge of the health of the game likely know that’s never going to happen. They know this because baseball on TV is apples and football on TV is oranges.