What Caused Baseball’s Ratings Slide?

It's facile to suggest that football's popularity is up and baseball's is down because football stuck with broadcasting and baseball migrated to cable. Many other factors are surely involved. But I think the choice of medium has certainly been a factor, maybe a big one.

I had lunch in Manhattan with a major investor in a TV station group a few weeks ago and we got around to talking about baseball and the post-season prospects for the Mets.

This guy was a real broadcasting enthusiast, but his interest in the Mets had waned. During the conversation, he suggested that baseball’s popularity has steadily diminished over the past 30 years because it more or less abandoned broadcasting for the more lucrative medium of cable.

My immediate reaction was that he was wrong. Yes, baseball’s grip on the public and its claim to being the national pastime have faded, but it wasn’t because it went behind a TV pay wall. It was because Americans simply prefer football and had plenty of other entertainment options.

But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think he may have a point.

That baseball ain’t what it used to be is clear, even though every one of its regular-season games are televised locally by regional sports networks and nationally by (A relative handful are broadcast. Here in New York, for instance, WPIX aired 27 Yankees games this season.)

The World Series is still broadcast, currently by Fox. But the ratings, while good by today’s standards, serve to illustrate the sport’s decline. I believe the series hit its ratings high (a 24.2 rating/59 share) in 1971, when it began playing games at night. (By the way, I attended the first night game in series history in Pittsburgh on Oct. 13. It was a good one, at least from my perspective. The Pirates beat the Orioles, 4-3, on their way to winning the whole thing in seven games.)


Despite the night games, the series never topped its Pittsburgh high. The household rating has ratcheted down over the decades, falling into the 20s in the 1980s, the teens in the 1990s and the single digits in the 2000s.

We have gotten to a point where Fox execs were jumping around like a bunch of walk-off winners for garnering a 4.6/16 in adults 18-49 in the first game of this year’s series. It’s always nice to have a team from the No. 1 TV market playing. If only Texas (DMA 5) or Houston (DMA 10) had managed to sneak past Kansas City (DMA 33) to supply the opposition.

These days, World Series numbers are not only dwarfed by those of the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl, but also by regular season games. When the question came up on CBS’s all-sports radio WFAN in New York this week, host Mike Francesa said NBC’s upcoming Sunday Night Football broadcast between the Denver Broncos and Green Bay Packers would draw more viewers than Game 5 of the World Series, assuming there will be a Game 5. He’s probably right.

You can measure football’s advantage over baseball in dollars, too. Even though it stages far fewer games and has far fewer seats to sell, the NFL enjoyed revenue of $11.2 billion in 2014, according to Sports Business Journal, while Major League Baseball garnered just $9 billion.

The NFL is TV’s dominant sport and, thus, America’s dominant sport. The Super Bowl, which regularly attracts more than 100 million viewers, is now deeply embedded in American culture, the centerpiece of an unofficial national holiday. It is what the World Series never was.

And the NFL’s partner in its rise to preeminence has been broadcasting — all the way. NBC’s broadcast of the 1958 sudden-death championship game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts captured the country’s attention and the NFL never let go. From its start in 1967, the Super Bowl proved a bigger draw than the World Series.

Even though the NFL strays on occasion (seduced by the dollars, it shifted Monday Night Football from ABC to ESPN in 2006, for instance), it values its relationship with CBS, Fox and NBC. Current rights deals with them run through 2022 and Super Bowl LVI. One of the great questions is whether the league with renew its deals with broadcasting beyond 2022.

It’s facile to suggest that football’s popularity is up and baseball’s is down because football stuck with broadcasting and baseball migrated to cable. Many other factors are surely involved. For many Americans, football is simply a more exciting game, a more dramatic game and, not incidentally, a much better game to bet on.

But I think the choice of medium has certainly been a factor, maybe a big one.

In the 1980s and 1990s when the over-the-air audience was still large, the NFL was there for everybody to enjoy week after week after week, while baseball slowly became a rarity and then invisible to those who couldn’t afford cable or didn’t want to bother with it.

TV broadcasting is the great promotional engine. It still is the best way to introduce a product and keep ’em coming back for more. The NFL understands this. I don’t think baseball does.

It would be nice to visit a parallel universe in which every baseball team made a point over the past 30 years of televising all their away games on a local station for all to watch. Would more seats be filled in the stadiums? Would the football-baseball viewership gap be smaller? Would America take a day off to watch the seventh game of the World Series?

Maybe so. Maybe my luncheon partner did have a point.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (37)

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Just Fine says:

October 30, 2015 at 3:09 pm

The popularity of baseball outside of New York, Boston, Chicago, and maybe Los Angeles has waned. Ballparks are always half-empty, and the names of ballplayers aren’t really all that known across the country like it was decades ago. And yes, I do believe cable’s stranglehold on baseball has kind of diminished the draw. of the game once seen as “America’s pastime.” Football, college basketball, and to some extent, NASCAR are more in-grained the the American psyche when it comes to sports culture. Baseball is having a crisis in this country that fans don’t want to admit.

Elaine Scharfenberg says:

October 30, 2015 at 3:59 pm

I think the pay wall theory has some validity. As more and more sports become pay viewed events, they will have followers who support them, like boxing for example, but never like the watercooler conversational place in our culture that advertiser supported media has had,.

Catherine Garcia says:

October 30, 2015 at 10:46 pm

Harry’s lunch partner is right. The unique combination of the broadcast networks and local broadcast affiliates is the best distribution in television and nothing else comes close. That’s why the networks stick with their broadcast affiliate partners despite all the tension in the relationship.

Gregg Palermo says:

October 30, 2015 at 11:56 pm

Slowness, strikes (especially 1981 and 1994) and steroids. MLB committed suicide long ago.

Teri Keene says:

October 31, 2015 at 6:23 pm

Best case example: When the Chicago White Sox decided to put most of their games on a subscription TV service in the early ’80’s, ratings dropped and attendance plummeted at Comiskey Park. Meanwhile, the crosstown Cubs thrived on WGN-TV locally and across the country with Haray Caray and an always-packed Wrigley Field. The Cubs continue to thrive today – just look at their recent success, while the White Sox continue to flounder in the ratings (least-watched home market ratings of all U.S. teams) and at the gate, despite a 2005 World Series Championship.

Mark Kammerich says:

October 31, 2015 at 8:20 pm

Baseball is boring on TV.

    Keith ONeal says:

    October 31, 2015 at 9:34 pm

    So is Soccer.

Tim Darnell says:

November 1, 2015 at 4:34 pm

Part of the factor is that football has a winner take all contest decided in one game. Even in the playoffs, baseball is a long haul process where it is hard to build suspense until it becomes a one game winner take all event. Ratings would soar, I would expect, if wild card games, playoffs, and the World Series were decided in single games. It would mean less revenue to the owners, so it is unlikely to occur.

Andrea Rader says:

November 1, 2015 at 10:08 pm

Another problem is that the postseason now extends into November, which places it in direct competition with not only football but basketball and hockey as well.

Wanda LaCroix says:

November 2, 2015 at 10:06 pm

Harry, your luncheon partner is “spot on”! That’s why the bulk of political advertising airs on local “spot” television, the medium that best connects with local viewers. Baseball has lost many of their “casual” viewers when MLB migrated more games to cable. For that matter compare the loss of Monday Night Football ratings when games were moved from the ABC network to ESPN. Remember the huge local ratings KDKA delivered airing Pirate games?

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