World Series ratings and the playoff format

Headlines this week:

"World Series finishes up with record-low rating" -- ESPN.com

"World Series ratings as anemic as Detroit Tigers' bats" -- Wall Street Journal

"World Series ratings for the 2012 Fall Classic: Abysmal" -- The Big Lead

Headlines from last June:

"NBA Finals television ratings continue to soar" -- L.A. Times

"Game 1 of the NBA Finals generates record TV ratings for ABC" -- Forbes

"NBA Finals: Game 5 receives high TV ratings" -- The New York Times

The NBA Finals -- featuring the star power of LeBron James and Kevin Durant -- did outdraw this year's World Series, averaging a 10.1 rating compared to the World Series mark of 7.6. Ratings represent the percentage of U.S. households that watched the game, so the NBA Finals had 2.5 percent more households watching the game, which in the world of TV ratings and ad revenue is a significant number.

Still, it's funny how the headlines spin drastically different stories. I can spin a story as well: Did you know in the last 13 years, going back to 2000, the World Series has drawn higher ratings than the NBA Finals nine times with another year essentially a tie? Did you know that the Forbes headline is a little misleading; it was referring only to games broadcast on ABC, which has held NBA Finals rights since 2003. NBA Finals ratings are still far below what they were throughout most of the '80s and '90s (they peaked at 18.7 in 1998). In other words, it's pretty easy to spin the story that World Series and NBA Finals ratings are both sinking.

Anyway, Joe Posnanski addressed some of this in a blog the other day. He writes how the expanded playoffs means the best teams don't always meet in October: "And since 1995? You ready for it? Twenty-one teams have won 100 games. Two have won the World Series. Two. The 1998 Yankees and the 2009 Yankees. Even more incredible ... FOURTEEN of the 21 100-win teams did not even reach the World Series."

Joe's implication, I believe, is that perhaps this is one factor in the declining TV ratings -- among many factors, of course (more viewing options, baseball becoming more of a regional sport, less star power than the NBA and so on). I've suggested that as well, although there isn't really evidence to support the theory.

Joe also writes:

But in other ways, baseball is more popular than ever. While fewer people are watching the World Series, more people than ever are going to baseball games. You have to believe that baseball's incredible gate -- 75 million tickets sold this year, fifth-highest total ever, and all five have been in the last eight years -- is directly connected to the expanded playoffs with more teams having a shot at the postseason. There's more hope around baseball and more teams involved and so on. Baseball as television sport? Hard to see much good there. But baseball as a live spectator sport is in a golden era.

I tend to think that in many ways the baseball playoffs are less interesting with more teams. The first round this year featured incredible action -- all five series going five games, many dramatic games and late-inning rallies. But we still had nearly three weeks of games to go and the next three series were duds, two sweeps and a seven-game series without an interesting game. The playoffs drag out for a long time, too many series don't go the distance and the World Series is now often played in sub-optimal weather that presents a bad viewer experience. (Who wants to watch baseball players dressed in winter gear?)

The NBA playoffs drag on far too long as well, but there is usually a payoff by Finals time: You get the two best teams or the built-in storyline of LeBron or Kobe or KD or KG. The NBA is built around its stars, and the nature of the sport is the stars always reach the Finals. The World Series sometimes builds to a great finish -- the seven-game affair last season or the Red Sox in 2004 or the classic Diamondbacks-Yankees matchup in 2001 -- but often it feels like just a random pairing of two decent teams, which is kind of how this year felt. Plus we've been plagued with unexciting results in recent years: Only two of the past nine World Series have gone more than five games; it's no coincidence that three highest-rated matchups in that span were in 2004 (Red Sox-Cardinals), 2009 (Yankees-Phillies, six games) and 2011 (Cardinals-Rangers, seven games).

FOX doesn't seem too concerned with the ratings. "The World Series has been a top-10 prime-time hit for over 40 years and even with a four-game sweep this series was no exception," said Michael Mulvihill, FOX senior VP of programming. "This World Series gave us exactly what we expected: a top-10 show among all viewers and a top-five show among hard-to-reach younger men. It’s important for us to remain focused on the Series relative to today’s competitive environment rather than bygone years."

I'm sure MLB would like higher ratings; then again, I'm not sure it's too concerned either.

The recent deals signed with ESPN, FOX and TBS totaled $12 billion and will pay MLB $1.5 billion annually from 2014 to 2021 -- or $50 million per team. (More details here at the Biz of Baseball site.) The previous contracts with those three networks totaled $711.7 million annually -- so baseball received a 111 percent annual increase. On top of that, consider MLB Network revenue, MLB Advanced Media revenue and local media deals that are skyrocketing in many markets, and you realize the baseball business product is performing exceptionally well.

But that doesn't mean the postseason product is necessarily what everyone wants. At this time, we have to live with the system we have: The regular season purchases your lottery ticket to the playoffs, but once you get there, it's a crapshoot of survival. That doesn't mean it's not a difficult task to run the gauntlet through three opponents (or possibly four if you're a wild-card team) to capture the World Series title; it does mean we have to adjust our thinking that the best team is the one which manages to win 11 (or 12) games in October as opposed to 95 or 98 or 100 in the regular season. Organizations have to learn how to build for that 15-to-20 game stretch in the playoffs more so than building a team that dominates over 162 games. (Maybe it's the same thing, I'm not sure.)

Hey, we can't live in the past forever. This is the system we have and it's not changing any time soon. (Although I'll still argue to my death that the 2001 Mariners were one of the great teams in baseball history.)