While Yankees v. Dodgers would been MLB’s dream television matchup for the World Series, the Red Sox v. Cardinals setup is likely better than most. When these same two teams met in the 2004 fall classic, they averaged the second most viewers of any Series since 1986. Unfortunately for overall viewership, the Red Sox swept the series in 4 games. However, so far, viewership is well below that of 2004, in the 15 million viewer range versus 22-25 million per game in 2004. Even at 2004 WS viewership levels, baseball’s premier event would draw only about the equivalent of an average Sunday Night Football regular season matchup. In years with lower profile teams playing, the viewership for MBL’s showcase looks more like an audience for each week’s Monday night game on ESPN. In contrast, the Super Bowl draws over 100 million viewers.
For many years, this kind of disparity between national television audiences for football and baseball led to concerns over the health of baseball along with discussions as to how baseball might “fix” the problem. Over time, however, it has become clearer that baseball’s future in terms of television revenues lay along a different path.
Before the late 1960s, there was no Super Bowl, and it took a decade for it to evolve into a major, primetime television event. Monday Night Football did not emerge until the early 1970s. College Football televised on or two games per Saturday. In this era of American sports history, the World Series stood at the pinnacle of sports consumer interest. By the 1980s, pro football had fully gained its television legs, and after a key 1984 Supreme Court decision, college football’s television footprint began expanding.
Baseball appeared relegated to the minor leagues. As the figures above indicate, in terms of national television audiences, the World Series barely matches up a run-of-the-mill NFL prime time game. The lesson MLB has learned is that a pie doesn’t have to come all in one pan. The big for numbers for MLB are not found in national audiences for a single game or series, but, instead are tied to regional telecasts. Beyond the Yankees, the Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, and teams in much smaller markets draw thousands of television fans per game over the course of the 162 game season. This Forbes article on Baseball’s Biggest Deals provides details. The overall pie is split into a lot of smaller pans. The aggregate numbers for TV revenues are still below the NFL but are sizable.
While NFL fans have regional team interests, they also watch games involving other teams. Consumers care about the NFL’s product at both a team-specific and league-wide level. In contrast, baseball consumers exhibit much more limited league-wide interest than NFL consumers and much less than MLB consumers of 60 years ago. The bulk of baseball consumer interests center on a specific team. It took baseball quite a while to fully grasp that evolution, so even though the World Series may not be what it once was to sports consumers, it really isn’t an accurate indicator of baseball’s health anymore.