Major League Baseball’s steroidal new postseason format appears to have had a dilutive effect on the TV ratings, as the expanded Wild Card round failed to match the outsized audiences of recent years.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the four playoff series averaged 2.75 million viewers over the course of nine games. While that figure far exceeded baseball’s regular-season national-TV turnout (the league averaged 927,896 viewers per game across Fox, ESPN, TBS and FS1), the Wild Card deliveries were underwhelming when compared to the ratings commanded under the old playoff structure.
Leading all comers was the Padres-Mets series, the only pairing of the four to require a rubber match. San Diego’s decisive 6-0 blanking of New York in Game 3 accounted for the biggest draw of the playoffs thus far, as ESPN averaged 3.96 million viewers during its Sunday night telecast. That’s about half the turnout for last year’s Yankees-Red Sox skirmish, a single-elimination showdown that averaged 7.69 million viewers, and well shy of TBS’ analogous Cardinals-Dodgers playoff, which scared up 6.67 million viewers the night after Boston eliminated New York.
The Padres’ one-hitter also came up short of the single-service Brewers-Nationals (4.73 million) and Rays-A’s (4.54 million) Wild Card matchups in 2019 and was eclipsed by Rockies-Cubs (6.33 million) and Yankees-A’s (6.16 million) in 2018. A similar pattern emerges when you compare Sunday night’s deliveries to the Twins-Yankees (6.73 million) and Rockies-Diamondbacks (4.39 million) in 2017; in fact, the deciding frame of the Padres-Mets series was out-rated by each of the 18 standalone telecasts that aired during the expanded Wild Card era that began in 2012.
If the Mets failed to match the Yankees’ string of brawny postseason deliveries, the Amazins were saddled with a primetime slot that put them in direct competition with Sunday Night Football. With an average draw of 15.9 million linear-TV viewers, NBC’s presentation of the Bengals-Ravens game was down 9% versus the year-ago 17.5 million, but was still the night’s biggest draw by far. Under the retired Wild Card format, the AL and NL games aired on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, a scheme that kept baseball out of harm’s way.
While MLB’s tireless fiddling with its legacy rarely pays off in an improved fan experience, Disney can’t really complain about the new playoff structure. ESPN walked away with what amounted to seven bonus postseason games, and because the league allows its network partners to sell more ads during the playoffs—the maximum number of October units is 52 per game, up from 42 in the regular season—the network booked an estimated $35 million in additional revenue.
The new-look Wild Card round’s numbers start to look a bit less threadbare if you compare them with the turnout for the COVID-hampered 2020 playoffs. After a truncated 60-game season, MLB introduced a provisional Wild Card scheme featuring eight best-of-three series. Fan response was mixed, with individual-game deliveries ranging from a low of 345,000 viewers (on TBS) to a high of 2.6 million. ESPN averaged 1.7 million viewers during the first stage of that heavily asterisked postseason run, which translates to 60% improvement this time around.
Of course, media buyers and advertisers are rarely, if ever, swayed by this sort of statistical cherry-picking, so it’s anyone’s guess as to who might benefit from making what amounts to a specious comp. All told, the Padres-Mets set averaged 3.5 million viewers, topping the Phillies-Cards two-fer (2.82 million) and the pair of Mariners-Jays telecasts (2.2 million). Bringing up the rear were the Guardians and Rays, which eked out 1.82 million viewers in their two early-afternoon windows.
The primetime action resumes tonight, when the Guardians take on the Yankees in Game 1 of the ALDS on TBS. Fox Sports 1 closes out the first day of the divisional round with a late Padres-Dodgers start.