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TV ratings are misleading: MLB isn’t back

Posted on 11.21.2017
Graphic by Erik Cliburn

Graphic by Erik Cliburn

During the last two World Series, it was hard to find a sports fan who did not watch any part of the Chicago Cubs or the Houston Astros’ championship runs. When the Cubs broke their 108-year championship drought against  Cleveland Indians team that happened to also be playing against a 68-year championship dry spell, 40 million people tuned in to watch.

This year, months after a devastating hurricane hit Houston, the Astros won and took home the Commissioner’s Trophy.  The 2017 series averaged 18.9 million viewers, according to Foxsports.com.

The average baseball fan would look at these numbers, note the rising stars around the league such as Aaron Judge, Kris Bryant and Mike Trout, and tell you baseball is in a renaissance. However, it is not. Let me be clear in saying, I do not like baseball. Generally, I only watch the postseason or watch it with friends who are fans. After these past two years of average same-old baseball, I can’t stand the constant conversations I hear about how “baseball is back” and “It’s so much better than x years ago,” because it’s not true.

Television ratings can be misleading, and individual teams can affect millions of people. It’s pretty simple. When teams such as the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs are good, baseball gets better ratings. That does not mean the quality of play is any better.

The New York Mets, Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Angels, play in the three largest cities in the United States, so it is no surprise they get more viewers. When they are good, or more importantly, playing for the World Series, they not only have more fans to tune in and watch, but also more people tuning in to root against them. In a survey commissioned by
FiveThirtyEight.com, the Yankees are the most hated team in the country, with the Dodgers and the Cubs also in the top five.

Comparing the television ratings of good teams to their less-successful city counterparts, makes clear that being good increases a team’s ratings. The Cubs finished the season with a 92-70 record, which was better than the White Sox’s 67-95.

Even with numbers that were worse than a season ago, when the Cubs made their historic run, they still had a much larger television audience than the White Sox. In fact, the White Sox had the second smallest television rating in the league this year, despite also playing in the third largest market.

According to fangraphs.com, “Eight of the 12 teams to have recorded at least a 20-point improvement in win percentage from last season have also experienced a more or less corresponding improvement in television ratings.”

Like any other sports league, including the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League and even the titan-esque National Football League, which garnered 111.9 million viewers during the most recent Super Bowl,  Major League Baseball is a business. A Yankees vs. Cubs or Dodgers vs. Cubs World Series would be great business, but not necessarily great baseball. On the same note, a matchup between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Oakland A’s would be horrible for ratings and revenue for the league. Baseball isn’t suddenly a better sport and more entertaining to watch because a Los Angeles team or New York team is good this season; it will always be the same boring game.

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