TBS’ MLB playoffs see ratings slump

Both N.Y. teams absent for first time in 13 years

With six of Major League Baseball’s eight postseason teams hailing from major media markets, this year’s playoffs held out the hope of a ratings bonanza. Thus far, however, the results have been largely a letdown.

TBS, the sole broadcaster of the four Division Series, averaged a tepid 4.2 million total viewers over the 15 MLDS games, down 22% vs. last year’s 5.4 million across 12 games.

The diamond action ended up in a pickle between the recent Wall Street meltdown and a heated presidential campaign notching record numbers at business and news channels.

What’s more, none of the series made it to a tie-breaking fifth game, and the marquee Los Angeles Dodgers-Chicago Cubs series — which many fans had hoped would be a League Championship rather than a divisional meeting — proved to be a lopsided 3-0 L.A. sweep.

On Thursday Major League Baseball moves on to the League Championships and a very muddy picture for ratings prognostication.

The shakeout from the first playoff tier left both Chi franchises (the Cubs and the White Sox), and the two teams with the best regular-season records (the Cubs and the L.A. Angels), eliminated.

“From a programming perspective, that’s a bit disappointing,” said Ed Goren, prexy-exec producer at Fox Sports, which will broadcast the National League Championship Series (TBS will air the American League contests).

Then there’s the New York factor. Those A-list losses come on top of the absence of both Gotham franchises from the mix for the first time in 13 years. Time will tell as to whether that will have a discernible Nielsen impact. “It’s not just about the home market,” Goren insisted. “You can do well even in the biggest market, but what about the rest of the country?”  

Moreover, Goren added, these days the Yankees are not the only franchise with a coast-to-coast profile. “Five or six years ago, before the Red Sox had their run, if the Yankees got eliminated, you thought, Oh boy, we’re in trouble.” But with teams such as Boston and the Cubs having accumulated national profiles, he said, “The sport is so much healthier today.”

Besides, alleged Rick Gentile, director of Seton Hall Sports Poll and former CBS Sports prexy, “Everybody in baseball hates the Yankees, there’s no great love for the Mets, and there’s a general disdain for New York.” He added, “It’s a sports thing.” 

More important for TBS and Fox than Yankees or Mets on the playing field, said Gentile, are Big Apple viewers on their couches. “They need to get double-digit numbers in New York to have a really big rating.” 

On a more promising note: With the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays in this year’s league showdowns in addition to the Dodgers, this year is the first since 1999 that four top-13 markets comprise MLB’s final quartet. 

And among those teams are some potentially bankable narratives. Goren deemed Philly first baseman Ryan Howard “the most exciting young power hitter in the game,” while Sports Business Institute chief David Carter called the “no-name” Tampa Bay Rays — who jumped from a last-place division finish in ’07 to first place this year — “the great team that no one really knows about.” As the New York Giants’ improbable ascension to Super Bowl glory demonstrated, viewers love a Cinderella story.  

The Dodgers, however, go into the playoffs’ late stage with the most buzz, largely thanks to the acquisition this season of former Yankees manager Joe Torre and ex-Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez.  

With the hapless Cubs now out of it, a Bosox-Dodgers Series is now perceived as the dream World Series matchup. “If you’re looking for drama that will capture the attention of the whole country,” said Goren, “Manny going back into Boston for Game 1 is that national grabber.” And, with a former manager and a perpetual Beantown rival in the mix, the L.A.-Boston Fall Classic could prove riveting to Gotham eyeballs.

“Even if the Championship Series on paper don’t look as though they’re going to draw massive ratings, it still cues up for a potential windfall for the World Series if it’s the Dodgers and the Red Sox,” Carter said. “That would be an instant classic.”

For Goren, who hopes to see Fox top the 11.5 million total-viewer average for its 2007 LCS coverage, it will ultimately come down, as it usually does, to the quality of the play. “When a series gets to 3-0, you’re not going to do much business in Games 4 and 5,” he said.

And, he added, a little luck: “We do tend to light candles this time of the year.”