MLB raises its averages

People are streaming into ballparks at a record pace, ratings are up across the board, teams in five of the six divisions are locked in close races, and Barry Bonds is about to break the granddaddy of all baseball records: Hank Aaron’s 755 career home runs.

“No question about it,” says Ed Goren, president of Fox Sports. “Baseball is on a roll.”

At Fox, Goren points to the 3.7% jump in ratings for its schedule of exclusive Saturday afternoon games as one sign that fans in most cities think their teams have a legitimate opportunity to make the playoffs.

ESPN’s baseball ratings are up by more than 7% overall, driven by the exclusive games on “Sunday Night Baseball.” On Sunday, ESPN’s primetime numbers have shot up by 26.3%, thanks to two high-rated contests featuring the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, the most cutthroat rivals in baseball. And 10% more people are watching TBS’ coverage of Atlanta Braves’ games than they were last year.

Even the 1977 edition of the Yankees found a sizable audience. The first hour of “The Bronx Is Burning,” an eight-hour scripted docudrama on ESPN about the wildly dysfunctional team that went on to win the 1977 World Series, chalked up a solid 2.2-million viewers on July 9, 56% of whom were people 18 to 49.

And while it’s always great for baseball to have fans in big markets like New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago on the edge of their seats, interest is also higher than usual this season in cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland, where the long-suffering Brewers and Indians are very much in the postseason hunt heading into the final 10 weeks of the season.

Having teams vying for playoffs in so many regions of the country can’t hurt, since the overhyping of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry, says Rick Gentile, professor of sports management at Seton Hall U., may be one of the reasons why postseason baseball ratings tend to drop off each year. The American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Red Sox averaged a 12.9 rating in 2003 and a 12.2 in 2004. But the ALCS average plunged to a 6.5 rating in 2005 (White Sox and Angels) and a 6.4 in 2006 (Tigers and A’s).

Baseball plans to address the postseason Nielsen slump — a record-low number of people tuned in to watch the Cardinals beat the Tigers in five games during last year’s World Series on Fox — by linking up with Fox and TBS to start promoting the October elimination rounds more than two months in advance.

David Levy, president of Turner Sports, whose TBS has ponied up $1.05 billion over the next seven years to carry all of baseball’s divisional playoffs and to share coverage of the league championships with Fox, says, “We’ll reach a whole new level of audience base for the playoffs” through spots on TBS and its cable siblings, including TNT, CNN, Cartoon Network and Court TV. “Feel the Fall Classic, even in July” is one of the tag lines for the campaign, and Dane Cook is the overall host.

“Turner’s parent Time Warner has an abundance of resources,” says Kevin O’Malley, sports-media consultant and a former top exec with Turner Sports. “You can bet that baseball will go into the post-season this year not with a whimper, but with a bang.”

The crystal ball is predicting an early vacation for Bonds’ last-place San Francisco Giants, but he’s still the biggest regular-season draw. Len DeLuca, senior VP of programming and acquisitions for ESPN, cites Bonds’ pursuit of “the most important statistic in all of sports” as a galvanizing event this year. “The media follow every step that Barry takes, both on and off the field,” DeLuca says, also referring to Bonds’ alleged use of steroids.

To Neal Pilson, sports consultant and former president of CBS Sports, what the pumped-up Nielsen ratings and booming ticket sales at the stadiums are telling the sports world is that “large numbers of people have moved on from the steroid issue; it’s in the past. The fans are caught up in the pennant races.”

Pilson says it’s not only ratings and attendance that are up, but “baseball licensing and merchandising are strong and corporate sponsors are happy. The game has seen no defections from any national advertisers.”

But the media love conflict and controversy, Pilson continues, so they’re “keeping the steroid story alive, even though it’s not resonating with John Q. Public.”

David Carter, director of the Sports Business Institute at USC, says viewers have developed the ability to overlook a player’s bad behavior by divorcing onfield performance from personal conduct. O’Malley simply points to the resiliency of the Grand Olde Game. “Just about every year, you get experts predicting the demise of baseball in the hearts of the fans,” he says. “But every year the sport bounces back, tapping into an audience base that’s just too strong, broad and deep” to be swayed by the scandal of the moment.

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