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Why no one cares about the World Series anymore

Michael Santoli
Michael Santoli

This year’s World Series has great characters and storylines. So why are so few Americans captivated by the drama?

The dynamic, too-young-to-worry Royals that brought Kansas City its first pennant since 1985 and the colorful, resourceful San Francisco Giants back to their third Series in five years have split the first two games.

Yet the ratings for Fox’s game one broadcast were the lowest for a Series opener since the Fall Classic was first televised in 1947, continuing a steady, decade-long slide in the television audience for postseason baseball.

Have Americans, in their 21st century over-stimulated haste, at last lost their patience for the leisurely pace of the game?

“It has now become widely acknowledged,” says Yahoo Finance contributor Henry Blodget in the attached video, “that even Major League Baseball is starting to recognize just the pace of the game takes forever.” While he notes that some game-hastening rules are being tested in the minor leagues, in the majors long breaks, tedious pitcher rituals and TV cutaways cause games to drag.

This year the typical game in the majors this season exceeded three hours, the longest average duration ever. Three decades ago, games were almost a half-hour shorter. MLB, an otherwise thriving industry in terms of attendance and revenues, understands this problem and its newly elected Commissioner Rob Manfred has assigned a committee to figure out ways to quicken the pace of play.

Blodget notes that pro football continues to dominate in TV mindshare, with its built-for-TV physical drama and mayhem, augmented by runaway interest in fantasy football and gambling. Tellingly, the NFL’s Thursday night regular season game last week drew 25% more eyeballs than did World Series game one.

But surely the syrupy, contemplative cadence of ballgames isn’t the only explanation for softer TV ratings. Games are not appreciably longer now than they were a year ago, when the first Series game between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals drew 15% larger TV audience than this year’s opener.

The match-up of two smaller-market teams without many nationally recognized stars is likely also sapping viewer interest. For as enjoyable as the Royals’ unlikely sprint into the Series has been, Kansas City is the 31st-largest TV market in the country and the team lacks either a national following or brand name superstars.

Sure, the San Francisco Bay area is a top-ten TV market. But it sprawls, is split between the Giants and Oakland A’s and the team’s brand hasn’t travelled as well nationally, the way the Red Sox, Cardinals, Dodgers and Yankees have. Baseball has always been a more local game, the season-long team narrative playing out city-by-city rather than followed by a single national audience.

This year there wasn’t enough buildup of interest in either of these teams to generate much collective suspense over the culmination of the long season in October.

The bigger story here might be the secular decline of live, primetime television viewing (for nearly everything but football).

It’s worth noting that, even with the relatively weak ratings Tuesday night, Twenty-First Century Fox Inc.’s (FOX) Fox led all networks in viewership among the heavily targeted 18-to-49 year old demographic.

This secular challenge of trying to gain notice in a crowded field of on-demand viewing, copious entertainment options and a fragmented audience pool is one Major League baseball needs to get serious about addressing. It’ll take more than a blue-ribbon commission about forcing pitchers to deliver the next pitch a few seconds faster.