On New Year’s Eve, right before the nonsense with the ball and the song started up, if you were to have leaned over to whisper to your date something to the effect that teams from Los Angeles in 2020 would win two of the sports world’s most storied championships, and within just 16 days of each other, you’d probably get the old, “That’s nice, dear. Maybe go easy on the bourbon.” And if you’d forged ahead and intimated that both title quests would play out in front of record-low TV audiences, by all likelihood you’d find yourself bundled into a taxicab destined for Bellevue, your objections punctuated by brittle tsks of disapproval.
As it turns out, these wildly unlikely events did come to pass, as the Dodgers on Tuesday night celebrated their first World Series win in 32 years on the heels of the Lakers’ securing their 17th NBA Finals crown on Oct. 11. And as much as you’d expect that the combined mojo of star power and a massive hometown audience (L.A. is the nation’s second-largest media market) would move the Nielsen dials, the TV turnout for both six-game series was historically low.
Fox’s World Series coverage averaged 9.72 million viewers and a 5.2 household ratings over the course of the six nights, unseating the 2012 sweep as the least attended-to Fall Classic. The Giants’ 4-0 whitewash of the Tigers eight years ago averaged 12.6 million viewers and a 7.6 rating, continuing a downward trend that began on the far side of the 232-day MLB strike in 1994-95. (World Series deliveries set a record low no fewer than eight times in the 18-year interval between baseball’s return from its labor stoppage and the San Francisco sweep, with seven of those nadirs coinciding with midterm or presidential election years. The one notable exception: The earth-shattering Cubs-Indians series in 2016.)
Although it’s difficult to assign causality in these sort of situations, the fraught and noisy 2020 presidential election cycle likely accounts for some of baseball’s ratings declines. Cable news ratings this month have been on an absolute tear, with Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC posting their highest primetime deliveries in their respective histories. Bolstered by the Biden-Trump debates and its coverage of the White House coronavirus scare, Fox News in October has posted the single-highest ratings in the 40-year history of cable news. Demographically speaking, there’s a generous overlap between baseball fans and cable news viewers, and it’s likely that a good chunk of would-be World Series watchers are spending more time with Tucker Carlson, Chris Cuomo or Rachel Maddow.
The all-important demo also fell to a record low, as Fox’s in-game deliveries averaged a 2.5 rating, good for around 3.25 million adults 18-49. That marked a 26% decline from last year’s 3.4 average, or 4.4 million members of the under-50 set. The median age of the World Series viewer was 56.2 years old, or a decade grayer than the fans who tuned in for the NBA Finals on ABC (46.1).
In addition to the incursions of the cable news yakkers, baseball this fall faced the usual crush of pro and college football games. The wild Game 4 clash was handed the unenviable task of going head-to-head with the season’s first primetime Big Ten game (with an average draw of 5.12 million viewers, ABC’s Michigan-Minnesota broadcast now ranks as the fall’s fourth most-watched college football game), while Game 5 had to contend with Seahawks-Cardinals on NBC, an NFC West matchup that scared up 14.3 million viewers Sunday night.
How the ratings may have fared if the New York Yankees had found a way to get past the Rays in the ALCS remains a subject of fruitless speculation, up there with chatter about what might have been had Kevin Cash not yanked Blake Snell in the sixth. That’s baseball, Suzyn.
While media reporters have churned out the predictable surfeit of ratings Guernica in light of Fox’s MLB deliveries, all that molar-gnashing apocalypticism has been about as overblown as it’s always been—especially in light of how the overall TV universe is performing this season. For one thing, the possible pool of viewers has shrunk significantly this fall; according to Nielsen’s figures for the first 37 days of the 2020-21 season, the broadcast audience is 27% smaller than it was during the year-ago period, which works out to a loss of 7.5 million viewers per night. In keeping with the general shrinkage, viewership among the adults 18-49 demo set is currently down 23%.
If sports ratings have been getting hammered over the last several months, those losses are nothing compared to what’s going on with the networks’ general-entertainment programming. In the absence of any significant scripted content, broadcasters have had to make do with a junk drawer of game show reboots, competition series and midseason castoffs. At the moment, the average rating for a non-sports broadcast series is a dismal 0.6, which means that the Big 4 networks are each only reaching around 775,000 members of the target demo during primetime.
The state of the TV marketplace is really thrown into high relief when you compare the World Series’ numbers to Fox’s in-house entertainment deliveries. Fox currently airs three of the four lowest-rated scripted dramas on network TV in Filthy Rich (1.98 million viewers/0.4 demo) and Next (1.68 million/0.3), two holdovers from the 2019-20 season that haven’t exactly connected with viewers. In that light, the 12.6 million viewers who tuned in for Game 6 seem like less of an incentive for Fox execs to go scrambling for the Valium. (Of course, if you pull Fox’s national NFL window into the mix, everything goes straight to hell. Through three coast-to-coast broadcasts, Fox’s pro football showcase is averaging 23.6 million viewers, down a mere 1% versus the year-ago 23.9 million. Not too shabby, considering how overall NFL ratings are down 14% since the season began.)
All told, Fox’s 2020 World Series deliveries were down 30% compared to last year’s Astros-Nationals set (13.9 million), which from a rate-of-change perspective isn’t nearly as drastic as the losses sustained by the displaced NBA Finals (down 50% to 7.45 million viewers) and NHL Stanley Cup Final (down 61% to 2.09 million). But in clawing back their respective series, each of these big-time sports leagues had to deal with the same issues; that the three were able to blaze their title trails in the midst of a pandemic—while saving their network partners from taking an absolute financial beating—cannot be understated.
It is unlikely that a World Series game will register among the top 100 broadcasts of 2020. Last year, two of the Astros-Nationals broadcasts made the cut, with Game 7 claiming the No. 28 spot (23 million viewers, 13.1 rating) and Game 6 sliding into the 77th slot (16.4 million/9.6). But in the grand scheme of things, it’s not at all likely that this year’s results will have an outsized impact as Fox takes the 2021 World Series to market. Given the overall marketplace disruption and the whole “hang an asterisk on this one” vibe that comes with a 60-game season, it’s difficult to imagine that marketers are interpreting this entire year as anything but a massive do-over.
More to the point, Fox just booked between $175 million and $200 million in ad sales revenue—an estimate that does not include the cost of the audience deficiency units it will dole out in order to make its advertisers whole. Still feels like a win, regardless of how few people were around to see it.