Fox scoring with baseball

ESPN's games off

NEW YORK — Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Sports is making America fall in love with baseball again, while ESPN is causing frowns among Major League Baseball executives.

The Nielsen numbers are cause for celebration at Fox as all three of its national feeds so far this year are showing double-digit audience gains compared with the same period in 1998.

By contrast, ESPN’s Wednesday and Sunday nationally cablecast games are off year-to-year in the ratings.

Preseason analysts predicted that the ratings would be more in line with what ESPN is doing because last year benefited from competition between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to break Roger Maris’ major league record of 61 home runs. Also, a march by the New York Yankees in 1998 to the best won-lost record ever chalked up by a MLB team grabbed the attention of even casual fans. This year, the Yankees are good, but not that good.

From Fox’s standpoint, “Baseball has recovered from all of the complaints a few years ago about labor unrest, exorbitant player salaries and various ownership issues,” said Tracy Dolgin, chief operating officer for the Fox Sports net. “The momentum kicked in last year, when people started focusing on McGwire and Sosa. That’s when the turnaround began, and it’s continuing.”

In the first nine weeks of the season, the Fox Network’s Saturday afternoon games are up to a 3.0 rating, which is 11% higher than last year’s 2.7 rating for the comparable period.

Similarly, an ad-hoc network Fox Sports puts together every Thursday night across its regional sports nets is averaging a 0.91 rating for the first 16 games, up 18% compared with the 0.77 rating for 1998’s first 16 games.

Even Murdoch’s FX cable network has increased its audience for the first 17 Saturday night games, from a 0.47 in 1998 to a 0.53 so far this year, a 13% gain.

ESPN’s numbers tell a different story. Over all, counting both ESPN’s Sunday and Wednesday games through Sunday, the network has fallen 7%, from a 1.57 rating in cable homes a year ago to a 1.46 rating in 1999.

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