Fox needs coasts most

Net mulls possible match-ups in MLB postseason

As baseball’s postseason kicks off today, and fans start debates about dream matchups, Fox has a firm idea who it hopes is standing when the American League faces the National League: the Yankees and the Dodgers.

To maximize the World Series’ Nielsen potential, Fox needs East Coast vs. West Coast, marquee players and the storyline that the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers provide.

If recent history repeats itself — smaller-market teams, no regional conflict and a series of fewer than seven games — Fox could be looking at a multimillion-dollar loss and a less-than-fulfilling platform to promote November sweeps programming.

An N.Y.-L.A. matchup in the series would benefit Fox the most. And considering the conventional wisdom that Fox needs six games to chalk up a profit in the series, a seventh game would be manna.

“A faceoff between the Yankees and the Dodgers would be the best World Series in terms of potential ratings,” said Neal Pilson, sports media consultant and former president of CBS Sports. New York and Los Angeles are the two biggest media markets, and the teams have a rivalry going back to the 1950s, when the Dodgers made their home in Brooklyn.

The World Series matchup likely to plunge Fox into gloom would be the Yankees vs. the Mets, in a Subway Series, said sports consultant Kevin O’Malley. The fact that the two teams hail from the biggest market in the country, he said, would be offset by diminished interest among viewers outside the New York area.

The Yankees and Mets battled in the Fall Classic in 2000, in a five-game series won by the Yankees. The matchup managed only a 12.4 household rating, the third-lowest in World Series history.

The same falloff in enthusiasm would greet a California-based World Series between the Oakland A’s and either the San Diego Padres or the Dodgers. The games would cause shoulder-shrugging from fans in the other 49 states. Games featuring Oakland or San Francisco have historically struggled in attracting national auds.

The second worst-rated series in baseball history was the Anaheim vs. San Francisco matchup in 2002, despite the fact that it went to a full seven games. The worst in history was last year’s series between the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, which the Sox won in four games.

That game seemingly proved the point that no matter how much Fox tries to generate enthusiasm through stories about the players, managers and the teams’ histories, it’s an uphill battle if the team does not already have a national profile.

David Carter, a principal in the Los Angeles-based Sports Business Group, said Fox will be scouring the teams’ rosters for “themes, stories and personalities.” Fox will deploy its considerable marketing artillery, Carter said, to hype playoff games in the runup to the series between such smaller-city teams as Minnesota, St. Louis and San Diego.

The Twins, for example, have three of the best pitchers in the majors; the Cardinals boast power hitter Albert Pujols; and the Padres have popular veterans such as Mike Piazza and Trevor Hoffman. The Detroit Tigers offer a rags-to-riches story, as the team was one of MLB’s worst just a few years ago.

This year, Fox’s hype may reach a receptive audience.

“Baseball set another attendance record this year” for its regular-season games, said Mike Trager, sports expert and former head of Clear Channel Entertainment. “The fans proved to be immune from all of the negative stuff about steroids. The momentum going into the postseason is pretty strong.”

But, on the downside, Pilson said, if the World Series ends up with a four- or five-game blowout, Fox will lose millions of dollars. Fox’s license fee for Major League Baseball — regular season and the playoffs — averages out to $417 million a year.

Fox and ESPN will split the best-of-five division series that begins today. Fox could end up with as many as five primetime games over seven days if all the division series go to the maximum.

The American League Championship series begins Oct. 10 and the National League Championship series a day later, with Fox carrying both of these best-of-seven series. In the one potential conflict, on Oct. 15, Fox will permit its sister network FX to carry one of the games.

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