After 133 days of quarantine, Major League Baseball emerged from the virtual sick bay last week, and despite being burdened by rainouts and blowouts, the slate of 11 national telecasts on ESPN, Fox and TBS delivered reassuringly healthy ratings. Here’s hoping the players can follow suit.
The season began on a stormy Thursday night in Washington, as the New York Yankees and Nationals scared up the highest regular-season TV ratings in nearly a decade. According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, ESPN’s coverage of the opener averaged 4.01 million viewers—of whom 1.65 million were members of the adults 25-54 demo—and a 2.5 household rating before a mid-summer storm brought a halt to the proceedings with one out in the top of the sixth inning. That marked the highest delivery for an MLB telecast on any network in nearly a decade and set an all-time ratings record for an Opening Day game.
ESPN’s previous high-water mark for a regular season MLB tilt was set on Aug. 7, 2011, when an extra-inning Yankees–Red Sox duel delivered 4.72 million viewers, of whom 2.1 million were members of the network’s target demo.
The rain-shortened MLB opener now stands as ESPN’s most-watched live sporting event since the NBA’s Blazers and Lakers served up 4.41 million viewers (including 2.37 million adults 25-54) back on Jan. 31—a game that aired just five days after the death of Kobe Bryant.
By way of comparison to last season’s far more conventional Opening Day festivities, the Yanks-Nats deliveries were up 238 percent versus the primetime Red Sox-Mariners blowout on March 28. It’s worth noting that Seattle’s 12–4 victory, which averaged 1.19 million viewers, ran head-to-head with TBS’s coverage of the Purdue-Tennessee Sweet 16 game (4.88 million viewers).
On the broadcast side of the TV ledger, Fox got its belated MLB season started with a Saturday triple-header that culminated in a one-sided Yanks-Nats follow-up that averaged 2.79 million viewers and a 1.8 household rating in prime. The defending champs’ 9–2 win was up 18 percent compared to Fox’s year-ago opener, which, in most markets was an Astros-Red Sox slugfest.
On Sunday afternoon, TBS got the ball rolling with the Yanks-Nats rubber game, a 3–2 squeaker that averaged 653,000 viewers in the 1 p.m slot. Blacked out in 9.2 million homes in New York and D.C., the Turner Sports telecast was actually up 65 percent compared to the analogous Yankees-Rays game in 2019.
ESPN closed out the weekend with a National League doubleheader featuring the nation’s two largest TV markets. The Braves’ 14–1 dismantling of the Mets in the primetime slot accounted for the only negative comp thus far, as the game’s average draw of 1.39 million viewers was off 26 percent compared to ESPN’s first Sunday night telecast of the previous year (Braves-Phillies) and down 42 percent versus the more proximate Yankees-Red Sox showdown on July 28, 2019.
Per iSpot.tv data, among ESPN’s most visible advertisers were official MLB sponsors Scotts, Bud Light, Geico, Gatorade, Bank of America and Taco Bell. John Deere served as the presenting sponsor of Thursday night’s inaugural telecast. Fox’s biggest backers included Geico, Toyota, Rocket Mortgage, Ford, Bank of America, Capital One, State Farm, Bud Light and Applebee’s.
TBS’s client roster offered a similar mix of auto, fast food, beer and insurance heavyweights, although a pharmaceutical brand (AbbVie’s Humira) snuck into the mix, as did Amazon Prime. As was the case with ESPN, which over the weekend ran a few in-game spots for Jim Beam, TBS’s MLB coverage featured some commercial messaging for brown liquor—in this case, Crown Royal.
Baseball fans who aren’t already exhausted by national politics will have to bear down for an onslaught of presidential campaign ads, as the Joe Biden and Donald Trump camps continue to ramp up their Election Day pitches. Thus far, the challenger has nearly tripled the incumbent’s baseball spend, snapping up a pair of 60-second spots in ESPN’s MLB coverage while placing three ads of the same length in Fox’s Saturday broadcasts. President Trump thus far has limited his MLB investments to Fox, airing three 30-second spots in the same Saturday baseball games in which the Biden ads appeared.
Both candidates paid the same rate for the Fox in-game avails, a unit cost a little north of $50,000 a pop.