The first five games of the World Series have produced a ratings win for Fox and Major League Baseball, drawing a larger audience than last year’s dud thanks to two large fan bases and plenty of on-field drama. That should help put to bed the idea that baseball is struggling when it comes to television. And yet they haven’t kept many TV observers and commentators like ESPN’s Keith Olbermann from wondering why “nobody watches the World Series.”
Craig Calcaterra did a fine job demolishing most aspects of that hand-wringing over at HardballTalk earlier this week, pointing out that while it’s true that World Series viewership has declined from historical highs four decades ago, the same can be said for pretty much everything else on TV. The World Series, he added, is routinely beating college football broadcasts and winning key male and adult demographics. Still, it seems the only comparison anyone takes seriously in this discussion is the one with the NFL, and even if this year’s Game 5 outdrew Monday Night Football (14.4 million to 10.7 million) and Game 4 helped sap 5 million viewers off of Sunday Night Football‘s average audience, baseball is largely losing the head-to-head TV battle with the NFL, a fact the NFL and its fans love to trumpet at every turn.
But does that matter in the larger question about baseball’s health on TV or otherwise? I don’t think it does. Rather, it’s just evidence that Major League Baseball has taken a different approach to growing on TV, one that acknowledges disadvantages it faces against the NFL and the reality it faces on TV.
Forget the World Series for a minute. The larger question should be about baseball’s health on TV as a whole. And there, it’s doing just fine, even if it has taken a wholly different approach than the NFL. During his rant about World Series viewership, Olbermann decried the fact that there are no longer nationally-followed baseball teams. That isn’t exactly true — the Yankees, Red Sox, and to a lesser extent a few other teams can claim some sort of national fan base. But more than that, it misses the point: baseball is approaching TV in a regional manner, and that’s precisely what it keeping it healthy on the tube.
The NFL is a national product and its fans consume it as one. They’ll watch virtually any NFL game, no matter how bad the product. It’s quite a bit easier for the NFL to make itself a national product than other leagues, MLB included, since it plays a small amount of games and they are isolated to three days and five time slots per week. It can easily broadcast virtually every game, or at least make every game available via its TV packages, and its primary focus for decades has been on turning itself into a major TV product. MLB, meanwhile, plays 10 times as many games and spreads them out over each day of the week and multiple time slots each day.
So rather than aim for a national fan base that doesn’t exist or try to create one, Major League Baseball has catered to its regional audiences, as Brian Goff at The Sports Economist notes. Its teams have taken advantage of the explosion of Regional Sports Networks, signing lucrative long-term deals that are bringing in more revenue than TV ever has. In 2011, MLB’s 30 teams combined to earn $984 million from local TV packages, a 103 percent increase from a decade before, according to Forbes. According to FanGraphs, the estimated average annual rights fees for these regional packages now totals well more than $1 billion. And it’s all in addition to the league-wide deals with Fox, TBS, and ESPN that are collectively worth another $12.4 billion over the next eight to 10 years. And on the local level, fans are watching the games, even if which markets are particularly strong fluctuates based on which teams are in contention.
Major League Baseball isn’t the NFL. It never will be. But that doesn’t mean it is in trouble. It’s finances are just fine, having grown from $1.4 billion in 1995 to $7.5 billion in 2012. And it’s doing just fine on TV too, largely because instead of trying to compete with the NFL, it’s providing its product to fans in a way that matches the way they consume the game (it’s expansion of MLB.TV has only aided that). Comparing baseball directly to the NFL doesn’t address that they are different products consumed in different ways. So even though MLB isn’t matching the NFL, that doesn’t mean it is dying or even struggling. It just means it’s taking a different path to its own success.