The World Series kicks off tonight on Fox
A typical response might be: “Who cares?” But for the discerning fan, who wants a healthy sport with valuable franchises and well-paid players, ratings are vital. Future television contracts, and thus future player contracts, are partially predicated on how many people tune in to watch the NL and AL pennant winners in a best-of-seven tussle.
Of course, if Fox had its druthers, the World Series would have the New York Yankees facing off against the Los Angeles Dodgers, two teams with storied histories, who also happen to be in the #1 and #2 television markets. Instead, they get the Rangers, who have never won a World Series against the 84-win Diamondbacks, who squeaked into the playoffs as a negative run-differential Wild Card team.
The Phillies (#4) or the Braves (#8) or the Astros (#10) all would have been on Fox’s wish list. But, as it stands, it is #5 (Dallas-Ft. Worth) vs. #12 (Phoenix) for baseball supremacy. Despite all the conjecture, this may not turn out to be the disaster that pundits or the conventional wisdom have made it out to be.
World Series viewership has been in decline in recent years – with the truncated 2020 season seeing an average of less than 10 million viewers over the six games between the Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays. That series was off nearly 80% from the high-water mark in 1978, a six-game set with the above-referenced dream match-up of Yankees vs. Dodgers. But, that comparison is not useful insofar as viewership patterns across all forms of television have changed mightily over the past 45 years.
What hasn’t changed, what Fox needs, what the health of the game needs, regardless of the opponents, is for the Series to go to a Game 6 and, in an ideal world, a Game 7. Even the aforementioned 2020 Series saw viewership increase 131% from Game 1 to the deciding Game 6.
The last time the Rangers were in the World Series, in 2011, people articulated many of the same concerns about potential ratings. That year, the Texas team lined up against the St. Louis Cardinals, who happen to play in the 21st largest U.S. market. Game 1 of that series drew 10 million viewers. But when arguably the greatest World Series game of all time was played a week later (Game 6), more than 12 million people tuned in. And then nearly 15 million set their dials to watch Game 7. The 14.7 million fans who saw the Cardinals beat the Rangers in 2011 mad that the most watched World Series game until Game 7 of the 2016 – a clash between the Cubs (#3 market) and the Guardians (then known as the Indians) (#17).
Simply put, it matters less who the teams are, and matters more how many games they play. You can bet that Fox executives are hoping for (A) competitive games and (B) a LONG series. In 2018, the Red Sox (#7 market) beat the Dodgers (#2) in only five games. 50 million people – in total – watched those five games. The next season, the Nationals beat the Astros in a series that went the full seven. Nearly 65 million sets of eyeballs – in total – watched those seven games, meaning nearly 30% more viewers, in the aggregate, had their televisions tuned into Fox, even though it was #9 vs. #10 in market size.
If past is prologue, the recently completed league championship series augurs good news. As Mary Whitfill Roeloffs reported in Forbes, viewership for both the NL and AL series, both of which went seven games for the first time since 2004 (not counting the wonky 2020 season), held steady. And according to Barrett Media, 9.1 people tuned in to watch the Diamondbacks win the pennant over the Phillies on TBS – a very strong number.
These ratings questions will all be answered over the course of the next week. How evenly-matched the Rangers and the Diamondbacks are and how many games they play in this series will matter more for total viewership and ratings than where they rank in media size.