Ratings swing for the fences

Auds tuning back in to baseball

Forget the players: It’s Major League Baseball’s Nielsen ratings that are on steroids.

The average rating of all the baseball games for the first six weeks of the season on the regional Fox Sports Networks is up by an eye-opening 23% compared with the same period in 2003.

And ratings in some of the individual markets are exploding. Fox Sports Net Chicago is averaging a stellar 6.6 rating for the first 13 Chicago Cubs games this season, which is 127% higher than that of the first 13 games last year.

Despite their shaky start in the field, the New York Yankees, on their wholly owned regional YES Network, are averaging a 4.4 rating through the first 25 games, a 47% jump.

In other cities, season to date, the increases are equally dazzling: The Florida Marlins are up by 103%, the Anaheim Angels by 57%, the Detroit Tigers by 65% and the Houston Astros by 36%.

Sports-media mavens point to a number of reasons why baseball is on a roll:

  • The sport is still America’s beloved pastime. In a period of high unemployment, an increasingly bloody war in Iraq and frequent terrorist alerts at home, TV audiences may be seeking out the familiar relief of a well-played baseball game.

  • The accusation that some star players have taken steroids to artificially pump up their performance drew so much attention to baseball prior to opening day that even the most casual fans started tuning in to more games.

  • An unusual number of off-season trades and free-agent signings have ramped up interest in teams like the Yankees (with Alex Rodriguez added), the Angels (Vladimir Guerrero), the Astros (Roger Clemens) and the Red Sox (Curt Schilling).

“The continuing growth in baseball goes back to 9/11,” says Neal Pilson, head of his own sports consultancy. “Baseball brings people together, stadiums play ‘God Bless America’ in the seventh inning, and there’s a level of comfort and security to watching the games.”

David Levy, president of Turner Sports, says the steroid controversy “put baseball in the spotlight, and helped to breed intrigue and interest,” not just within the baseball community, but beyond it. The charges of steroid abuse detonated not just in the sports section but on page one.

Steroid use has offended baseball purists, but Levy is not complaining about the attention given the sport: TBS’s coverage of Atlanta Braves’ games is up by 25% among men 18 to 49 and by 11% in men 25 to 54, despite a subpar performance by the team.

“What’s really given a boost to baseball is the way teams are playing in the big markets,” says David Carter, a principal in Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group. He cites the solid winning records of the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox and Phillies as giving a boost not only to the local ratings in these cities but to the national numbers.

The nationally distributed ESPN is up by 14% in both 18 to 49 and 25 to 54 for the first 15 cablecasts so far this year, and ESPN 2 is off to an even better start — up 40% in 18 to 49 and 50% in 25 to 54 for the first 13 cablecasts.

Bob Thompson, president of the Fox Sports Net, says another reason for baseball’s hot streak in 2004 is “the carryover from the post season last year,” when the divisional playoffs and the league-championship series — most of them broadcast by Fox — harvested the best primetime ratings in a decade.

Fans are seeking out games on TV with an avidity that Dean Bonham, president of the Bonham Group, says he hasn’t experienced in quite a while.

Thanks in part to recently instituted reforms like the payroll luxury tax and revenue-sharing, the wide disparity between big-market teams and small-market teams has narrowed a somewhat.

As Bonham puts it, “For the first time in a couple of decades, baseball fans in just about every American city awakened on the morning of opening day of spring training with a real hope that their team could make it to the World Series.”