The Ratings Game

CABRERA. DAVIS. PUIG. THE STORYLINES ARE THERE: SO WHY AREN’T THE RATINGS? THREE POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS TO DRIVE UP THE GAME’S POPULARITY…

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Dodgers Outfielder Yasiel Puig has taken the baseball world by storm over the past six weeks, yet casual fans haven’t seemed to notice much.

We’ve reached the traditional finish to the first half of the major league baseball season (even though nearly 60 percent of the season has been played), and boy, what a first half it has been. The storylines include the reigning triple crown winner Miguel Cabrera putting up video-game numbers (.365/.458/.674, 30 HR, 95 RBI–according to MLB Stats he could go hitless in his next 79 at-bats and still hit better than .300), a guy in Chris “Crush” Davis who hit more home runs by the break than anyone besides Barry Bonds (and his 37 are four less than he’s had the last three seasons COMBINED), a 22-year-old kid from Cuba named Puig who hasn’t stopped lighting up Hollywood since his call-up in June, becoming ESPN’s new lovechild in the process, and five of the six division races separated by just 2.5 games or less. It’s going to be a fun second half. So why aren’t more people watching?

According to Awful Announcing, MLB on Fox failed to draw a 2.0 rating in each of its first six telecasts this season (for perspective, Nascar’s Sprint Cup Series race at New Hampshire on Sunday did a 2.8 rating–on TNT). ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball dipped as low as a 1.2 for a Memorial Day matchup with the Braves and Mets. The ratings plunge has been a trend in the past decade. Take a look at these charts from SportsBusinessDaily.com:

FOX MLB SATURDAY REGULAR-SEASON TREND
YEAR
RATING
VIEWERS (000)
’12
1.7
2,500
’11
1.8
2,744
’10
1.8
2,700
’09
1.8
2,700
’08
2.0
2,900
’07
2.3
3,312
’06
2.4
3,348
’05
2.6
3,606
’04
2.7
3,727
’03
2.7
3,600
’02
2.5
3,445
’01
2.6
3,377
MLB REGULAR-SEASON GAMES ON ESPN
YEAR
VIEWERS (000)
’12
1,156
’11
1,449
’10
1,386
’09
1,607
’08
1,693
’07
1,775
“SUNDAY NIGHT BASEBALL” ON ESPN
YEAR
VIEWERS (000)
’12
1,784
’11
2,294
’10
2,177
’09
2,458
’08
2,617
’07
2,752
TBS SUNDAY MLB TELECASTS
(EXCLUDES TIEBREAKERS)
YEAR
VIEWERS (000)
’12
448
’11
556
’10
557
’09
614
’08
624

In Chicago, as of June 11th, the Cubs regular season games averaged a 1.7 rating on Comcast SportsNet, down 15 percent from that point last season, according to sportsmediawatch.com. White Sox games have been even worse–averaging a 1.3, down 24 percent from a year ago. Now, since both teams stink, this isn’t exactly shocking news. Baseball is a regional sport, and ratings in markets like Detroit and St. Louis, where the teams are contenders, continue to soar. But is winning the only thing causing the casual fan to switch from Man vs. Food to Sale vs. Cabrera? I think baseball is far behind its major sports counterparts in attracting fans to games beyond the scope of their home teams. MLB isn’t doing everything it can to capitalize on the national narratives it has going for it currently. The overall health of the sport is fine (the last nine seasons, 2004-2012, have produced the nine-most attended seasons in baseball history, according to Forbes), but the television ratings downward slope and overall image of the game should cause some alarm bells to go off. Here are some possible solutions.

LENGTH MATTERS

The most obvious and fixable problem with baseball is the length of the season. 162 games plus a month of playoffs is ridiculous in the current culture. Folks already complain about the length of games (as of last month, games averaged 2:57:53, which would tie the all-time high set in 2000, according to the Boston Globe). Combine that with the interminable season schedule, and the society of now and instant gratification is bound to turn away. Of course, purists will always argue the beauty of the game can be found in its nuances, which can only be played out in a space without a clock and a season that stretches six months. But Major League Baseball, contrary to popular belief, has actually adopted new rules and policies several times in its 137-year history, and one of them has been schedule length.

The modern 162-game schedule has now been in place for 51 years, back when there were only 18 teams in the league. From 1888 to 1961, the league schedule went back-and-forth from 142 games to 154 five different times (with a five-year switch to 132 games in 1893). Baseball has always employed the longest season of the major American professional sports for several reasons: it’s not as physically taxing as football or hockey; there is natural rest allotted for players taking the most toll on their bodies (starting pitchers) by only playing every four-to-five games, etc. Baseball is a grind, but to imagine an NBA player playing 40 minutes a night for 162 games a season is nearly impossible.

The solution? Chop off the first and last months of the season, and play a 96-game slate starting May 1st. Suddenly, you remove the cold, miserable April games played in climates like Cleveland and Minnesota who use outdoor stadiums meant for warm summer months, not games where this happens.

You also create urgency right off the bat and keep fans (and players) more engaged with pennant races that don’t last three times as long as a Kardashian marriage. Look what happened when both the NBA and NHL shortened their seasons because of separate lockouts. They went from 82 games to 66 and 48, respectively, and the regular season felt more entertaining to fans, an experience to savor instead of just a heavy, time-consuming appetizer to digest before the postseason. Those shorter seasons crammed too many games into such a short period of time, creating sloppy play and resulting in too many injuries that routinely found critics blaming the season length. However, this wouldn’t be the case in baseball. Teams already play six to seven games a week for six months and, if they are lucky to survive that, play three seven-game series to determine a champion. It’s a lot of baseball in a cramped time frame.

By cutting 40 percent off the regular season slate, baseball can now breathe a little bit, and still play more games than any of the Big Four leagues. With the reduced game-schedule, every team would get one off day a week (either Monday or Thursday), ensuring no stretches of 20-plus games in a row for some teams without an off day. Removing the rainy (and sometimes snowy) April from the docket also cuts down on postponed games that have to be rescheduled during the season. The real ratings trouble happens at the end of the season, when football kicks off again and fans turn their attention elsewhere. With the new shortened schedule, the regular season would end in late August, allowing fans to fully invest in pennant races without NFL or college football games interfering yet. The MLB playoffs would be in September, but playoff games should only be scheduled on Tuesday-Saturday, as to not overlap with the NFL, which would no doubt diminish ratings (we’ll take our chances with the college football crowd on Saturdays).

While we decrease the regular season length, we can then extend the playoffs by adding more teams. MLB already made a wise choice last season adding the second wild card team, allowing five teams from each league (33 percent total) into its postseason. This still lags behind football (12 total playoff teams, or 40 percent of the league), and far behind the NBA and NHL (16 total playoff teams, 53 percent). The NBA and NHL playoffs are long as it is, so I’d be in favor of six teams from each league making the postseason as opposed to jumping up to eight. With this format, the only logical way to work things out is to give each division winner a playoff spot, along with the next three best teams in the league, regardless of division. The two teams with the best records will get byes into the second round (again, this could mean they come from the same division, a la the Pirates and Cardinals this season). The three seed would play the six seed in a best-of-five series, the four seed getting the five seed also in a best-of-five. The lowest seed remaining plays the top seed in a best-of-seven, with the other two teams playing each other. The NLCS, ALCS and World Series would also be best-of-seven.

FLEX APPEAL

Along with a shorter season schedule, the major networks airing MLB games in primetime need to do a better job of showcasing the top players and teams in the game as the season goes along. For instance, Yasiel Puig was called up on June 3 and instantly ignited the league with his 5-tool arsenal rarely seen so early in a player’s career. Bar none, he was the most talked about player during the last six weeks. However, not one ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game (the equivalent to the NFL’s Monday Night Football telecast) included Puig’s Los Angeles Dodgers. Why not? The league set its Sunday night games through mid-July way back on May 29–five days before Puig’s call-up. Bad luck? Certainly. But what the MLB and ESPN should have done is employ a flex schedule similar to what the NFL and its Sunday night showcase on NBC work out.

Flex scheduling begins Week 11 in the NFL, and ensures the fans a marquee matchup for the final quarter of the season. It’s a smart, ratings-driven tactic that has worked. According to NFL.com, the announcement of which game gets “flexed” comes no later than 12 days before the scheduled matchup. If the NFL can change a game time with that short of a turnaround, there’s no reason the MLB can’t as well. And the league shouldn’t wait until the second half of the season to do so, either. Not one Sunday Night Baseball game in the final five weeks of the first half (and the first week of the second half coming up this Sunday), included Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis or Yasiel Puig, the three biggest player storylines going this season. Instead, we were force-fed two Yankees-Red Sox match-ups (which I can probably speak for most when I say those outside the East Coast are tired of), and not one, not two, but three games featuring the St. Louis Cardinals, which is understandable because of their record but overkill in that amount of time. Baseball has to continually look to showcase its best stories and talent during its marquee stage week-in-week-out, and it starts with flex scheduling more in tune with the NFL.

MARKET ME

Finally, player marketing needs to improve. The NBA is commonly regarded as the league of stars because we see those players in the flesh, unencumbered by helmets or hats. We see their faces more, and therefore we recognize and identify with them easier (unlike some Mets fans have been able to do with their own Matt Harvey). The best NBA players are also the ones we see most often on our TVs when they aren’t in a game (think Chris Paul and his State Farm commercials, Blake Griffin and his KIA ads, Derrick Rose and Adidas, Lebron and Nike, etc.) But where are the baseball stars? The best player in the league, Miguel Cabrera, hasn’t hit it out of the park with endorsers for a couple of reasons, both of which I don’t agree with.

The first is the language barrier. Cabrera is Venezuelan, and doesn’t speak perfect English. So what? He’s the best hitter on the planet and should be the face of the sport. Does Chris (or Cliff) Paul speak in his State Farm ad? Nope, its voiced over by a narrator. There are ways around the language gap, and it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to not highlight the game’s best talent. The other reason companies aren’t flocking toward Cabrera with seven-figure endorsement deals is because of his past off-field issues. Cabrera has a sketchy history with alcohol abuse, arrests–he was charged with DUI in 2011 and in 2010–and domestic violence, as his GM had to pick him up from a police station in 2009 after Cabrera fought with his wife (drinking involved). However, that was before his Triple Crown season of 2012, and his current first-half of unprecedented greatness. If Josh Hamilton can get endorsement deals with Vita Coco water after overcoming his off-field issues, there’s no reason why Cabrera, a player out of Hamilton’s league at this point, can’t grab a bigger endorsement deal and more TV face time.

If the only difference is their skin color, that’s unfair. Bryce Harper is a budding star–and white–and naturally, he’s a key component to MLB’s marketing campaign. And he should be, with such big-name sponsors as Under Armour. But more stars, no matter their ethnicity, need to be highlighted across media platforms. From what I’ve seen, baseball stars are still trailing their football and basketball counterparts in this crucial area to increase the sport’s popularity beyond a regional game.

—-

These aren’t the only areas of the game that need to be improved, of course, but they are a start. I think the media as a whole can do a better job highlighting the game (I’m looking at you, ESPN, running more off-season NFL, NBA and college football news during the summer than baseball stories). I also think generating more interest in the fantasy baseball game (or wagering on baseball in general) can be explored because we all know how much that drives football ratings on Sundays in the fall. If you have more than just a rooting interest on the line, you are bound to watch more games which don’t involve your favorite team.

Baseball is a stubborn sport. Change spreads through its pores slowly. I love the history and uniqueness of the game as much as any fan, but I also recognize its lag behind other sports nationally. Keeping every element of the game the same for the sake of  “we’ve always done it this way” won’t cut it anymore. New rules on video replay and the added wildcard team are steps in the right direction to raise the game’s profile. I hope they continue.

The second half of the season should be filled with compelling division races, another triple crown chase and a potential 60 home run season. Just make sure to tune in, or you might just miss it.

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Posted on July 18, 2013, in Baseball and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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