Across the five boroughs, the Baseball Gods are handing out the worst Halloween candy, stuffing the outstretched pillowcases of Mets and Yankees fans with spirit-crushing confectionary abominations. At one house they’re offloading Necco Wafers, while the place across the street is palming off twist wraps of Bit-O-Honey. As the trick-or-treaters gather under the grimy streetlights to review their haul, each new find is worse than the last; even with their faces obscured by rubbery Kaz Matsui and Carl Pavano masks, it’s impossible to conceal the disgust that is activated upon the discovery of a sticky wad of Circus Peanuts.
For the uninitiated, Circus Peanuts are these marshmallow-adjacent candies that look like nightmarishly oversized legumes, only they’re dyed Astros-orange and taste like bananas. Pretty much everyone with a tongue and a functional brain stem finds them completely revolting, and yet places like Brach’s and the Spangler Candy Co. keep cranking them out like AOL firing off trial discs in 1996. None of which makes a lick of sense, but then again neither does shelling out a combined $547.6 million on ballplayers who’ll be watching the World Series on TV.
If the guys on the Mets and Yankees rosters decide to plop down in front of Fox tonight, they may be the only New Yorkers tuning in. On a visceral level for New York fans, establishing a rooting interest for Philadelphia or Houston is like being forced to choose between getting shoved in front of the 4 train or being run over by a speeding M20 bus; it’s going to sting either way, and you’re not going to have a good time.
From a ratings standpoint, the Phillies-Astros matchup casts a pall on a New York market that represents 6% of all U.S. TV homes, although that isn’t necessarily to say that Fox should brace for a record-low turnout. Barring a sweep, it’s hard to imagine that this year’s World Series might draw a smaller crowd than the COVID-asterisked 2020 outing, a six-game Rays-Dodgers set that averaged just 9.72 million viewers—a meager result which marked a 23% decline from the previous low-water mark of 12.6 million set in 2012.
When it comes to scaring up the largest possible World Series audiences, duration is everything. Once it becomes apparent that a sixth game is in the offing, the casual fans beyond the two home markets begin making a point of catching up with the Fall Classic, and a seventh game is guaranteed to reach 20 million viewers or better. Yes, there have been outliers—in 2004, 25.4 million viewers watched the Red Sox broom the Cardinals in four straight, making it the second most-watched World Series of the Fox era—but the heightened interest had everything to do with Boston dispelling an 86-year championship drought.
History is a heady drug, and perhaps no sport is more prone to its intoxicating effects than baseball. Six years ago, when the Cubs expunged their 108-year-old demon, Fox drew north of 40 million viewers during Game 7. This marked the biggest draw for a televised baseball game in a quarter-century, and edged Fox’s previous record, which was set by the seventh game of the indelible Diamondbacks-Yankees series in 2001. The clincher, which unfolded in a city still reeling from the terror attacks of Sept. 11, delivered 39.1 million viewers.
Ending a lifetime of futility is not in the cards for either side, as the Astros won their first World Series just five years ago, while Philly last brought home Rob Manfred’s “piece of metal” in 2008. On the other hand, the markets represented by this year’s pairing are nothing to sniff at, as Philadelphia stands as the country’s fourth-largest metro area, while Houston is ranked No. 8. Together, the two markets include 5.57 million TV households, or around 5% of the national base (120.9 million).
Trouble is, it’s the 95% of TV homes that lie beyond the boundaries of Philly and Houston that will decide whether this year’s World Series is a hit or a whiff. Bryce Harper finally getting off the Mike Trout schneid and appearing in his first-ever Fall Classic should help boost Fox’s deliveries, although that postseason novelty may well be canceled out by Astros fatigue. This will be Houston’s third appearance in four years, and its fourth NL pennant in six trips around the sun. While opposing fans still fume about Buzzergate and the whole trashcan thing, most of the personnel who were involved in the shenanigans of 2017 are no longer around to execute a competent heel turn. In other words, the Astros demonstrably don’t inspire Yankee-esque levels of hate-watching; at best, they seem to have devolved into a mild irritant, like razor burn in double-knits.
And that’s not just New York talking. Per Nielsen, the 2019 Astros-Nationals showdown was the least-watched seven-game World Series in history, averaging 13.9 million viewers. That said, those numbers may have been quite a bit higher if the accusations of sign-stealing had come to light just a few weeks earlier. Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic broke the story on Nov. 12, or 13 days after the Nationals took out the Astros with a 6-2 victory. Any delight in watching the Astros falter didn’t help lift Fox’s numbers in 2021, as the six-game Houston-Atlanta series slumped to 11.7 million viewers.
(That the Yankees still inspire so much rage-viewing is remarkable, given that they’ve spent so many years as just another underperforming club with an inflated payroll. Being mad at a Yankees team that hasn’t been to the World Series in 13 years is a bit like getting all worked up about Hillary Clinton.)
Of course, a Yankees-Dodgers series is the grail, given the history of the two clubs, their massive reach and the bicoastal dynamic that such a meeting would entail. Game 6 of the 1978 Yankees-Dodgers World Series ranks as the fifth most-watched MLB game on the books, as 50.6 million viewers tuned in for that long-ago Tuesday night meeting on NBC.
Curiously enough, Philadelphia played a starring role in the most-watched (or second-most) World Series broadcast, as Game 6 of the Phillies’ 1980 stand against the Royals averaged 54.9 million viewers, also on NBC.
The ambiguity is a function of Nielsen’s record-keeping; for reasons that remain shrouded in mystery, the ratings service never bothered to tabulate the turnout for Game 7 of the epochal Mets-Red Sox series in 1986. But given the 38.9 household rating and an estimated audience of 1.66 people per home, the NBC broadcast likely averaged in the neighborhood of 56.7 million viewers, which would put that game a notch above the aforementioned Phillies-Royals clincher.
Now, even if this year’s Astros-Phillies set goes the full seven and is decided by a grand slam in the bottom of the ninth, Fox’s deliveries aren’t coming anywhere near those long-ago tallies. None of this will come as a surprise to anyone who’s kept an eye on the Nielsen ball during the last 20 years, and anyone who expects baseball (or anything else, for that matter) to scare up NFL-grade numbers is living in an ether haze. If there’s one thing to sort of cling to when the papers make with the usual round of World Series molar-gnashing, it’s this: Even if Fox draws “only” 15.5 million viewers per game, that’s still four times more impressions than the average primetime broadcast series manages to eke out every week.
For Fox, Game 6 is generally what separates a profitable World Series from a bust, and should the Phillies and Astros fight their way through to a half-dozen games, that’ll be good for at least $200 million in ad sales revenue. For context, it would take Fox about 35 days to generate the same haul with its nightly entertainment offerings.
Trouble is, most ratings-watchers would rather measure the World Series’ performance against the NFL’s weekly output. Comparing baseball’s ratings to those generated by pro football is a trap that many seem all too happy to tumble into, but it’s no more valid than pitting a Junior’s cheesecake against a loose handful of candy corn. They are two completely different realities, and the fact that one thing doesn’t measure up to the other thing speaks more about the NFL as a paradigm-smashing statistical outlier than it does the far more localized phenomenon that is baseball.
Candy corn may not be your thing, but at least it’s not Circus Peanuts. If nothing else, it’s more fun; after all, you can always screw a couple pieces of candy corn over your upper incisors and pretend to be Diabetes Dracula. Fox is pleased with its high-glucose vampire, and though he’s a little unsteady on his pins after an eternity of moping around the castle with the bats, he can still suck the corn syrup from the veins of any TV show that challenges him on his home turf. New York may not be in any mood for trick-or-treating this year, but that just means more candy for everyone else.