With the Major League Baseball playoffs now underway, some of the discussion that seems to always emerge every year centers on the television ratings for the playoff games and the World Series. Some of the talking heads will lament that the ratings aren’t high enough. This is partly unfair since the baseball playoffs take place during football season and the number of people who watch the NFL dwarfs the number for all other American sports comparatively. But the concern over baseball’s playoff ratings is not entirely without merit. When looking more closely, substantial problems are revealed.
More than any other sport, baseball is dependent on popular teams (almost always from big markets) to drive ratings. The lone World Series the New York Yankees played in during the past decade (2009) was the highest rated during that span. This was despite that series only going six games when two other series during that time frame (2011, 2014) went seven (game sevens drive up overall ratings for any series in any sport). The most recent World Series to rate higher than 2009 was 2004, when the Boston Red Sox finally vanquished the Curse of the Bambino. This was despite that World Series being over in just four games.
In contrast, the NFL does not need big market teams or historically successful franchises in order to get people to watch their playoffs games or the Super Bowl. American sports fans tend to watch the NFL playoffs and NFL Football in general regardless of who is playing. The Super Bowl is such an enormous event that many people watching aren’t even football fans and watch for other reasons (like the commercials). The market size and overall popularity of the teams involved is largely inconsequential.
The NBA is much more dependent on great players making deep playoff runs rather than teams from large markets. But this usually isn’t a problem when it comes time for the NBA Finals since at least one team playing usually has one of the league’s best players. For example, the ratings for the 2010 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers (the two most successful franchises in NBA history) were only marginally higher than the ratings for the finals in 2012 featuring the Oklahoma City Thunder and Miami Heat. This happened despite the fact that the 2010 series went seven games and the 2012 match up was over in five. This was, of course, due to the 2012 Finals being a head-to-head contest between Lebron James and Kevin Durant who were arguably the two best players in the game at the time. But in baseball, would ratings for a World Series between an average size market like Miami and a small market like Oklahoma City ever be close to that of one featuring the Red Sox and the Dodgers? My guess would be no.
So if baseball more so relies on popular teams from big markets in order to drive viewership, it is then fair to look into the migration trends for the areas in which the sport is most beloved. The general trend has been that Americans are mostly moving away from areas in which baseball is most important and toward areas where the game’s interest is considerably depleted. States which contain the three most popular MLB teams, the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs, lost a total of four US Congressional Districts as a result of the 2010 Census (New York lost two, Massachusetts and Illinois both lost one). Other popular teams such as the Cardinals, Phillies, Indians and Tigers are also located in cities/states where people are leaving. This is, of course, consistent with the general migration pattern in the US for at least the past few decades where the northeast and midwest are losing people and the south and west are gaining them.
In contrast to these classic baseball cities that people are fleeing, the southern and western areas they are migrating to typically do not love the sport with the same kind of passion. Although growing states like Florida, Texas, Georgia and Arizona all have baseball teams, those teams all take a back seat to other teams in their respective states (former ESPN writer Rick Reilly assessed which team in a given American sports city was the most important to the fans in that area here). This leads to the observation many have had that there are more Yankees and Red Sox fans at Tampa Bay’s stadium when those teams visit and more Mets and Phillies fans at Marlins home games featuring those match ups then there are fans of those Florida ball clubs. The south in general is statistically less interested in following baseball than those in the rest of the country.
Thanks to modern technology, people in any part of the country can still watch their favorite teams if they are willing to pay for a special TV package. Thanks to the internet, people can get updated scores for any team at any time. But baseball has more of a regional need than most other sports. I’ve heard many times from many people that they don’t like watching baseball on TV, but they do enjoy going to games at the stadium. Thus, people no longer being within close proximity to the stadiums which feature those popular, big market teams presents a bigger problem for baseball than people moving away from their favorite NFL or NBA team. Football and basketball don’t seem to become less watchable without the live stadium experience to the degree that baseball does.
All of this presents a unique set of problems to baseball going forward. The regional population shifts along with the sport’s over-dependence on popular, big market teams comprises a set of bad ingredients for the future of the game. Baseball can certainly survive this type of difficulty. But one can’t help but wonder how this will influence the status of baseball as a major American sport as these trends continue.