Monday, July 8, 2013

Today In Duh: MLB's TV Ratings And Attendance Aren't Good

Deny, Deny, Deny
Here are numbers that shouldn't surprise anyone with a brain: Fox and ESPN's MLB Game of the Week ratings aren't good. As in barely outdrawing NHL games. As in a teeny tiny fraction of what the NFL gets, and crushed by the NBA playoffs, and all of that is counter what most live sports are undergoing right now.

How bad is it? Yankees-Orioles last week drew 1.6... which is to say, 0.1 better than its lead in. Which was soccer, and not even a big ratings nation or event; Brazil vs. Spain in something called the Confederations Cup. Fox's game in 2012 averaged 2.5 million viewers, off 1.1 million from the 2005 peak, and there are more people in the country now. The numbers have dropped in 6 out of the last 7 years, and the year over year numbers are down in 10 out of 12 telecasts so far. For ESPN, they've dropped in four out of the last five years. Yankee telecasts alone were down nearly 40% in May compared to a year ago. Overall attendance is down in 18 out of 30 markets, and over 2% league-wide, and while it's easy to just lay the blame for that all at Jeffrey Loria's feet, it's also telling that the high-priced seats in television views have been empty for years now, with MLB teams showing no interest in fixing the visual. The league can deny this all they want, but numbers are numbers, and this is a league in decline.

Now, live sports is one of the few success stories that TV networks can point to in the past 10 years. In the DVR / DVD / Internet age, there's just better ways to spend your time, and with the MLB Network feeding the diehards all day and night, there's really nothing going on for the national telecast, assuming they aren't showing a particularly intriguing player or team. And with Yankee Fan more or less emotionally checking out this year, Boston Fan never being able to replace them with raw numbers, Met Fan on methadone and Philly Fan feeling like someone who failed to leave a party that ended two years ago... well, the entire Northeast megalopolis is more or less underperforming compared to past years. There just aren't enough new Pirate fans to take up the slack.

In the short term, of course, this doesn't mean much: baseball has more or less lucked into its current run of prosperity thanks to technology and the softening of other options, and it has used it to fund a flotilla of new yards to squeeze extra corporate dollars. (Here's a fun fact: Los Angeles has the third and fourth oldest parks in the bigs now, behind only Fenway and Wrigley. You can thank California's notoriously tax-adverse voters for that, along with the fact that no one who ever moves to California seems to want to move back. But I digress.) It's also going to take a while for the set in stone television commercial buying apparatus to change. Advertisers have been paying more and more for less and less for a decade now, because Online Is Icky and Numbers Make Mah Head Hurt or some such insanity. Sorry, I'm letting my day job slip into the blog here.

But in the long run, the fanbase is aging hard, and the sport just isn't attracting the noobs they way it used to. The summer season that it used to own is shrinking every year, from the always longer NBA playoffs to the increased coverage of NFL OTAs, not to mention the incursion of soccer. Hey, if you can get nearly the same number for Brazil and Spain as you do for the Yankees today, you'll probably
beat that game in another five years.

(Note that I'm not even getting into the Steroid Issue here. Other than to note that ever since the league presumably got cleaner, offense and the ratings have both gone into the tank. If MLB really wanted to "fix" this issue with speed, they'd juice the ball. But That Can't Ever Happen, No Way, No How, No Sir, Wink Wink. Moving on.)

People have been predicting the constriction and contraction of baseball for my entire life, and the game has held off its opponents for a very long time... but numbers are numbers, and ratings are ratings. If this isn't America's #3 sport now, it will be soon.

And if the Phillies, Mets, Yankees and Red Sox all have an off year at the same time, that story, and the self-fulfilling momentum that it will generate, will begin in earnest.

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