The number of people watching the World Series in recent years is at an all-time low giving the impression that Major League Baseball losing ground to the NFL, and even the NBA.
But what is hidden behind the thick veil of poor national television ratings is a sport that is more popular than ever at the local level. And as the sport grows at the local level that popularity isn't translating to the big stage and the most important games.
World Series ratings are plummeting
The 2012 World Series was the least viewed Fall Classic ever averaging just 12.7 million viewers during the Giants' four-game sweep of the Tigers. For comparison, the NBA Finals, with the help of a 7-game series and LeBron James, averaged 17.5 million viewers per game.
This year's World Series is off to a slightly better start with the first two games averaging 13.9 million viewers with two marquee teams from Boston and St. Louis. That is also slightly behind the first two games of the NBA Finals which averaged 14.4 million viewers.
On the surface, it appears that the NBA has caught MLB in terms of popularity. On a national, big-game scale that is true. But when it comes to the overall popularity, baseball is not only beating the NBA, it is keeping pace with the NFL.
World Series ratings do a poor job of measuring popularity of MLB
Consider the Tampa Bay Rays, who finished last in attendance this season, averaging just 18,645 per game and 1.5 million tickets sold overall.
For comparison, the Minnesota Vikings, a successful NFL team that plays in a similarly sized market, are averaging 63,817 fans per game and are on pace to sell 510,536 tickets this season.
On television, the Rays averaged 89,000 viewers per game in the Tampa-St. Pete market while the Vikings have averaged 543,000 viewers this season in the Minneapolis market for afternoon games and 879,000 for primetime games, according to data from the NFL.
If we consider the total viewership, 13.4 million people tuned in to watch Rays games this season on their local network. The Vikings are on pace to have just 9.7 million viewers on their local network for their 16 games this season.
That means if we consider attendance and people watching TV, total viewership of Rays games in the Tampa-St. Pete market was 14.9 million this past season while the Vikings are on pace for just 10.2 million.
Of course, a lot of that is repeat viewers and ticket buyers, but it still shows that even a poor baseball franchise can produce a massive volume of fans over the course of a long season.
Popularity of MLB teams is higher than ever
It is not just the Rays and it is not just the growth of the sport in small markets. In 1972, the Yankees and Red Sox combined to average just over 30,000 fans per game. In 2013, those teams combined to average more than 75,000 fans per game, an increase of 149% in four decades.
The recent surge in local television contracts also suggests that baseball is not hurting when it comes to reaching viewers during the regular season.
On the national stage, baseball is less popular than ever
While more people than ever are attending games and watching regular season games on television, the number of people tuning in to the Fall Classic has been going in the opposite direction.
The 1978 World Series averaged 44.3 million viewers. The 12.7 million average viewers for the 2012 World Series represented a drop of 71.3% in the same period when attendance more than doubled.
Keith Olbermann recently tackled the collapse of World Series viewership and blamed it on the increasing number of choices to watch on television (yes) and the lack of national teams (not exactly, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, anybody?).
Olbermann used the graphic at right to show that NFL teams have more national fan bases and fans are more likely to watch games involving teams they don't root for.
This is important, but it also misses the reason behind the numbers. Yes, NFL teams are more likely to have a national following. However, this was not due to a conscious decision by Major League Baseball to de-popularize the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers, as suggested by Olbermann.
Even though there is no longer a "Yankees Game of the Week" on national television, there is no shortage of Yankees games on national television.
Rather, the day-to-day availability of baseball to the casual fan makes it nearly impossible to root for your favorite team, whether that team is close by or not, and still follow other teams closely enough to gain an interest in what is going on outside your team's own division.
Nearly every game for every MLB team is on in the local market. That is six games per week at three hours per night and it is more like 4-4.5 hours per night if you include pre- and post-game shows.
On the other hand, the casual fan needs only to spend a few hours, 1-2 days per week to have a good sense of what is going on throughout the NFL. In a world with a gazillion media options both on television and in other mediums, that is a much easier task to undertake.
By the time the World Series rolls around, the average Twins fan knows less about the Red Sox and the Cardinals than they know about the Patriots and the Rams.
Baseball is not losing fans
On the national scale, the World Series can't compete with the Super Bowl and it is struggling to compete with the NBA Finals. But to suggest that baseball is somehow in trouble is missing the bigger picture.
Baseball doesn't need more fans. Baseball needs more fans to care as much about the sport as they do their favorite team. When that happens, the popularity that exists regionally, will once again start showing up nationally.
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