Just a few days before the inaugural KayRod Cast got underway on ESPN2, Alex Rodriguez told reporters that he wasn’t particularly concerned with how the new Sunday Night Baseball simulcast would perform in the Nielsen ratings. As difficult as it is to imagine that the former Yankee slugger won’t be tempted to eyeball the audience data—A-Rod once told us that he has a monitor in his office devoted exclusively to measuring engagement levels for each of his Instagram posts—he’s certainly not missing out on much.
According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, the first installment of the KayRod Cast averaged 264,000 total viewers, of whom 38% were members of the adults 18-49 demo. While an audience of a quarter-million people is small potatoes for a cable network that reaches 78.3 million households, the simulcast accounted for 10.7% of the overall deliveries for Sunday’s Red Sox-Yankees game, which drew 2.21 million viewers on the flagship channel.
As it happens, the ratio of KayRod Cast to Sunday Night Baseball viewers is identical to that of the full-season run of last fall’s celebrated ManningCast–Monday Night Football battery. Over the course of 10 telecasts, Peyton Manning and Eli Manning’s hangout show averaged 1.58 million viewers, making up 10.7% of the aggregate MNF audience (14.8 million).
Speaking to members of the press last week, A-Rod suggested he would approach the simulcast as if it were a dinner conversation over “a couple bottles of wine and a nice big fat steak.”
While a chophouse vibe didn’t carry the night—YES Network announcer Michael Kay couldn’t seem to break himself of the play-by-play habit and spent too much time fiddling with his scorecard, and A-Rod’s delivery was often as stilted as his laughter—the remote interview with Roger Clemens was particularly engaging, and ESPN MLB insider Jeff Passan did a lot of heavy lifting in the seventh inning. (Passan immediately set the tone of his segment when he led off with an observation about Kay’s noggin, which boasts a 7⅝ hat size.)
Throughout the opener, Kay and A-Rod yukked it up over a flood of disparaging tweets, many of which were predicated on the notion that a sudden, violent death was preferable to this thing for which nobody had asked. Early on in the telecast, KayRod producers flashed a March 24 tweet from a user who wrote, “I would rather jump head first into a bathtub with a toaster than watch 10 seconds of this.”
When asked about how he’d judge the success of the show, ESPN senior VP, production and remote events Mark Gross said his read on KayRod would likely evolve as the season progresses. “Sure, everybody is going to immediately look to the ratings on Monday morning. I probably won’t, to be honest with you,” Gross said. “I think [what we’ll look at] when we get done with a game on Sunday night, is how much fun do we think we had, and how much information and insight do we think we imparted to the audience.”
For his part, Kay pushed back a bit on the inevitable ManningCast comparisons. “This is going to be its own thing: Two people who love baseball talking about the game in front of us,” Kay said. I thought the ManningCast was great. If I could think that we could improve on it, it’s just going to be different, and I think we’re going to pay a little bit more attention to the game. Sometimes the game became secondary with the ManningCast.”
Kay and A-Rod will team up for another seven episodes between now and season’s end, and at least one will feature another Red Sox-Yankees matchup. Rodriguez has been candid about the role he’s played in baseball’s most heated rivalry, and any meeting between the two clubs is an opportunity for him to leaven his analysis with a little dirt. When he gets into the mechanics of a swing or the subtextual information that can be gleaned from an infielder’s unconscious movements during a pitcher’s windup, A-Rod is untouchable; toss in few untold stories about his various BoSox beefs, and you’re on the way to unlocking a far more compelling TV experience.
None of this is lost on A-Rod, although it’s unlikely he’d get much mileage out of recounting an 18-year-old AL East brawl during this week’s Braves-Padres game. “If you’ve been eavesdropping into conversations with Michael and I over the last 25 years, I would say about 60% of them have been about baseball,” A-Rod said. “But there’s been a large percentage about the fight we had with Jason Varitek or my relationship with Derek Jeter or what I’ve learned from Mariano Rivera or who am I dating.”
However the simulcast evolves, the opening numbers are in keeping with early expectations. While it’s unlikely that KayRod Cast will enjoy the same big lift the ManningCast experienced in its second week (deliveries improved 132% to 1.86 million viewers), the 10.7% audience share is ideal. Given the challenge is to build an incremental audience without cannibalizing the flagship telecast, Sunday’s results were encouraging; per Nielsen, the 2.48 million fans who tuned in to the Sox-Yanks game on ESPN and ESPN2 marked the biggest Sunday Night Baseball audience in four years, and represented a 68% improvement versus the 2021 season average.
Going forward, Kay and A-Rod will have a chance to refine the show in front of a live audience of hypercritical Cardinals, Mets and Phillies fans. And at least one of them won’t be looking at the Nielsen data. “I think ratings—and ESPN is not going to want to hear this—but I think they’re overrated.” A-Rod said. “The great thing about what we will be able to do is you’ve never seen it before.”
They haven’t quite delivered on that promise, but it’s still early innings.