Fox’s playoff payoff

Major-market pairings load the bases for net

NEW YORK — “A World Series matchup between the Cubs and the Red Sox would be like Christmas in October,” according to one analyst.

Nothing’s final yet, but Boston’s 4-3 victory over Oakland Monday night has set the stage for a battle of major-market teams almost sure to provide a ratings bonanza for the Fox Network. The stakes are high: The playoff games and the World Series will comprise most of Fox’s primetime lineup for the next 19 days.

The dream pairing — matching long-suffering Boston and Chicago –“would be the feel-good story of the year, transcending sports,” according to David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. The Cubs haven’t won the World Series since 1908 and the Boston Red Sox since 1918, so a battle between those two would almost certainly transcend sports and wind up on the front pages of national magazines and newspapers.

Already, Fox is guaranteed an American League Championship Series featuring the No. 1 market New York Yankees vs. Boston, the sixth largest market. The National League Championship Series pits the third-largest market, Chicago, vs. the Florida Marlins, in the No. 12 market.

Fox earlier made what has turned out to be a smart choice in opting for the Cubs as its primary national team for the early Division Series. Ratings on the network were up 27% year-to-year and the best in four years.

Even better, Sunday’s Cubs’ victory over the Atlanta Braves — the team’s first playoff series victory of any kind in 95 years — rated as the most-watched Division Series game since 1995. The Windy City checked in with a huge 37.7 rating/49 share.

Looking ahead, Dean Bonham, a sports consultant who runs the Bonham Group, acknowledges that a World Series appearance by the Chicago Cubs would be a great story because they’re “such lovable losers.”

Yankee lovers

But the New York Yankees would be the better antagonist for the Cubs, Bonham said, “because the first issue for the Fox Network is Nielsen ratings, and the bigger the market, the greater the viewership.”

The downside of a Cubs-Yankees series is that the Yankees are considered by far the better team, increasing the likelihood of a four-game blitz, which would be a disaster for Fox. Traditionally, ratings rise as the Series goes into a sixth or seventh game, and sports mavens say the Red Sox and Cubs are more evenly matched, increasing the chances of a dramatic seven-game Fall Classic, like last year’s Anaheim-San Francisco beauty.

2002 Series low-rated

But Anaheim’s seven-game victory over the San Francisco Giants was among the lowest-rated World Series in Major League history, mainly because the two teams were based in California, diminishing the rooting interest of people in the rest of the country.

The weakest matchup, said Mike Trager, a sports consultant and former chairman of television for Clear Channel Entertainment, would be Oakland vs. Florida, which “would lack the pizzazz” that the Cubs, Yankees and Red Sox would bring to the Series.

(Rick Kissell in Hollywood contributed to this report.)

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