While baseball's Fall Classic is tradition, ratings have fallen

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Above: The San Francisco Giants, above, will face the Detriot Tigers in the World Series, which begins Wednesday night on Fox. (Photo by GettyImages)

It’s not the Yankees or the Dodgers this time around, but the World Series, which starts Wednesday night on Fox, remains one of America’s great TV traditions.

Making their way to the Fall Classic are the San Francisco Giants (a seven-game comeback win vs. the St. Louis Cardinals) and the Detroit Tigers (a four-game sweep of the Yankees). San Francisco is the sixth-largest market in the country while Detroit is 11th, but that isn’t fazing Fox, which believes player-driven storylines can trump the lack of a top-five market involved in the World Series.

“You don’t worry about that,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox’s senior VP of programming research. “You just want teams that have good personalities.”

To that extent, Detroit comes in with Miguel Cabrera, the first winner of baseball’s Triple Crown — leading the league in home runs, runs batted in and batting average — since Carl Yastrzemski pulled off the feat in 1967. They also have on their staff perhaps the game’s finest pitcher in Justin Verlander.

In the Giants dugout is catcher Buster Posey. Coming off a horrendous injury in 2011, Posey has returned an all-star and was named the comeback player of the year.

For decades — before the NFL tightened its grip as the country’s most popular and most-watched sport — the World Series was must-see TV, no matter who was playing. Game six of the 1978 World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees drew 44.3 million, but two years later Philadelphia and Kansas City was just a notch below at 42.3 million.

Those types of World Series viewer totals will be never be seen again. Even though the victory by St. Louis over Texas was one of the most dramatic in baseball history, the seven-game series averaged 16.6 million. In comparison, the most recent Super Bowl drew 111.3 million, the NCAA basketball championship game garnered 20.9 million and the NBA Finals scored 16.8 million.

Despite baseball’s downward trend, live sports remain a rare commodity these days, and one in which networks pay a premium. Unlike all other programming which can be DVR’d and discussed a week later, sports is immediate. For that reason, the cost of a 30-second spot on the World Series for the past seven years has been in the $400,000 range.

To best monetize the price of high-priced baseball rights fee — Fox just reupped earlier this month for eight years at $495 million per year (nearly double the old deal) — the network is hoping for an extended series. If it ends in four games, however, Fox will certainly be disappointed. If the series reaches seven games, the final pitch will be thrown on Nov. 1, weather permitting.

The downside to Fox hosting the World Series, of course, is that it interrupts the regularly scheduled entertainment programs that were launched or restarted in September. Any momentum a particular show may have earned can be sapped by a pre-emption or two.

“The X Factor,” which may be off the air for two consecutive weeks if a Game 6 is played, has prepared for the inevitable World Series interruption. Fox has already planned to air a repeat on Oct. 31 and then return to air with a special Sunday episode on Nov. 4.

Mulvihill said the entertainment and sports divisions understand each other’s strategy and remain supportive.

“Our experience has been that the World Series can help get us to first place and entertainment keeps us there,” he said.

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