Every October, it's the same story in every bar and chat room, on any sports radio station or Twitter feed: Baseball is dying! No one watches anymore! Its fans are all old! Football is taking over! Turns out, to paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of baseball's death have been greatly exaggerated.
As Rob Manfred takes Bud Selig's chair behind the commissioner's desk, it seems an appropriate time to take a look at the game. No, it's no longer the national pastime -- watching NFL games one or two days per week makes it much easier to be a casual fan than baseball's 162-day schedule does. But according to a Harris Poll, 16 percent of Americans still choose baseball as their favorite sport, second only to, you guessed it, the NFL (32 percent).
"I'm not satisfied with being No. 2," Manfred tells us. "But comparing a sport that gets played once a week to a sport that gets played almost every day is apples and oranges. We're never going to stack up with a comparison that doesn't make sense."
Manfred is right. The decline of national ratings -- which are, in fact, going down in a hurry; the six least-watched World Series have been since 2007 -- don't tell the whole story. Baseball might no longer be the national pastime, but it's sure looking strong locally.
THE LOCAL PASTIME
In 2014, 11 teams ranked first in prime-time telecasts (7-11 p.m.) in their home markets, first in home markets on both broadcast and cable. Another six teams ranked in the top three broadcasts. All together, that's more than half the league! Yes, it's competing against a lot of sitcom reruns, but the point remains that most people watching TV in the summer are watching baseball. Particularly, it turns out, when the hometown team is winning: Over the past five years, eight more wins per season have translated into a one-point increase in ratings.
That also helps explain the growth in season-ticket sales that teams like the Royals see (a double-digit increase heading into 2015) after a successful season. Attendance is staying fairly constant from year to year, and all 10 of MLB's best-attended seasons have occurred in the last decade -- 2014's total of 73,739,622 was the seventh-best ever. Sure, no single game will reach 70,000 in attendance that many football games do. But there are 10 times as many dates, meaning that over a season, MLB's attendance dwarfs the NFL's (which was just over 17 million in 2014).
THE CABLE CASH COW
Next time you think about tuning in to your local regional sports network for a game, remember that you could be helping your team pay for the free-agent contract of David Price, Jordan Zimmermann or Matt Wieters. Local deals average more than $60 million in annual revenue per team -- that's a full 25 percent of revenue (and at least one or two big free-agent signings).
But a revenue problem looms, if cable's bundling packages fade away and subscribers can go a la carte, picking and choosing the channels they pay for and receive. Many teams have long-term contracts with their regional sports networks, which are funded by monthly carriage fees: 11 of the 30 regional contracts are through 2030 and beyond. Those fees are paid by all subscribers to a carrier, even if only a small fraction of them are watching the games.
For example, the Texas Rangers will make about $115 million this year from Fox Sports Southwest, which has 2.7 million subscribers but only 58,000 average viewers per Rangers game. That's 2.2 percent of the subscriber base. The chances that the Rangers could earn $115 million in paying subscriptions are next to none without asking viewers to pay an exorbitant monthly fee. So in Texas, if even five times the number of average viewers decided to pay for the channel, they'd have to pay almost $400 a year.
MLB teams making these deals face big questions. Are the annual payouts, like the $340 million Time Warner Cable promised the Dodgers, doomed to disappear if subscribers won't pay? What happens if teams sign players with money partly wrapped up in TV deals -- money that disappears if/when cable goes a la carte?
Cable analysts don't believe a complete breakdown of cable packages will ever come, but could 20 percent of subscribers abandon their packages because they can pick and choose what they watch? Of course. And no one is sure that those viewers who casually tune to games would be willing to pay to make up the cost of those who left. It's why Manfred is publicly honest about the landscape.
"The deals being done [between local TV stations and teams] are real," Manfred says. "But we are concerned about the unwinding of the cable model. We have solace in the fact that the content that these teams provide offers tremendous value."
SO WHAT'S THE PLAN?
Manfred has a point; plenty of people will watch local MLB content. But even if the numbers dip drastically -- and they would -- MLB won't be totally out of luck. The league was the first of the big four with a large digital media presence when it began broadcasting games online in 2002, and the business has become a huge boon. Paid subscriptions to MLB.tv, a league-owned site with its own app that airs nonlocal games, have climbed in each of the past three years, from 2.2 million in 2011 to 3.5 million last year, according to the league.
Manfred says the league has plans to become active in daily fantasy. "There's no doubt that skews younger," he says. And an appeal to a younger demographic would ease claims that baseball's fans, if not the sport, are the ones dying.
Baseball isn't dead -- yet. Sure, there are threats, and the cable network bubble bursting in the next five to 10 years is by far the most problematic. But when October rolls around and playoff TV ratings are down again, remind yourself of one number: $9 billion. That's the record revenue last year for MLB, a $2 billion increase in just the past four years, according to Forbes. (For context, the NFL hit about $11 billion last year, NBA about $5 billion and NHL $3.7B.)
That's a lot of money for a sport that supposedly has one foot in the grave.