Major League Baseball must be smiling from ear to ear this postseason. The World Series, which began Wednesday night in Boston, features two of the most storied teams in the history of the game.
The Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals. The World Series. The two best teams in the game. It's a ratings bonanza.
But what if it's not? What if the trend of dwindling World Series ratings continues in a year where baseball could not have asked for better LCS and Fall Classic matchups?
With Bud Selig leaving the commissioner's office soon, the next two years are as perfect a time as any to re-evaluate where the game is headed into the future. This commissioner has made his legacy the expansion of the playoffs. The next could create a legacy by shortening the World Series.
Local interest in the game has not waned—in many markets the game is as popular as ever—but that does not always translate to national big-game interest, particularly as the playoffs progress.
What if MLB changed the World Series to create more buzz, foster more interest and make its championship more nationally relevant again?
Would fans revolt, or pay more attention?
In 2012, the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers was a sweep and a total bust in the ratings. Fox averaged just 12.7 million viewers across four games, with the top rating of 15.5 million viewers coming in the World Series clincher.
The year before last, St. Louis defeated Texas in an epic seven-game series that was viewed by an average of 16.6 million fans, buoyed by ratings of 21.1 million and 25.4 million in the final two (elimination) games. Before Game 6, the average rating was under 14 million.
In fact, other than the last time the Yankees made the World Series in 2009, no Fall Classic has averaged more than 17.2 million viewers since the last time the Red Sox and Cardinals faced each other, in 2004. That rating was a fantastic 25.4 million viewers per game, thanks in part to Boston's curse-breaking run that season.
The last two times the Cardinals have been in a World Series without Boston, they have averaged just over 16 million viewers. Boston's 2007 sweep of the Colorado Rockies averaged just over 17 million, again inflated by nearly 21 million tuning in for the clincher.
It didn't used to be like this. Back in the 1980s and '90s, the World Series would habitually average more than 30 million viewers. Since 2004 there have been just four World Series games, let alone series, to get more than 20 million viewers—and all of those were elimination games.
Even with the monster ratings in 2004, the last time a World Series game had more than 30 million viewers was Game 7 in the 2002. The year before that, Game 7 between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Yankees had 39.1 million viewers, the highest-rated game since Game 6 in 1992.
Sure, there are more things on TV today than back in the '90s, but twice as many people (24.8 million) tuned in per game to watch the 1997 World Series (Florida vs. Cleveland) than last year. The 1997 series was capped by nearly 38 million fans watching Game 7.
What do you think the ratings would be for a Marlins and Indians World Series today? Would it even beat The Walking Dead?
Will this year's World Series beat The Walking Dead?
Game 4 of the 2013 World Series will be on against a host of high-rated television programs on Sunday night. The competition is not just flesh-eating cable zombies, but the ratings-devouring NFL as well.
But what if there was no Game 4? Could interest in the World Series actually increase if the Series was shorter?
At a time when there are more choices than ever on television, the Super Bowl ratings have increased nearly every season since the game began.
Forget about raw numbers, as the NFL is always going to get more fans than any other sport. The issue is growth and retention.
The Super Bowl rating has increased by more than 30 percent over the last 25 years, while the World Series rating has been nearly cut in half. Surely some of that has to do with the increased popularity of the NFL in general, but a lot could be attributed to the "big-game" nature of the Super Bowl.
One game that decides a championship is a powerful draw for a casual audience. Asking fans to earmark seven out of nine consecutive nights to tune into a baseball game between two teams they have very little interest in following is a difficult task for a network and a league.
So what if the Series was just three games?
Suggesting that a 162-game season that takes nearly nine months to play should be decided by one winner-takes-all event is ridiculous, I admit. But the notion of a three-game series to determine a champion makes a lot more sense in today's competitive sports landscape.
Three World Series games could be played at a neutral site, with cities bidding on hosting the event, just like the Super Bowl. Having a dedicated location every year could create an immense buildup—much like the All-Star Game—while giving fans (and television viewers) three games with much more meaning in each.
Currently, with a seven-game set, there is a noticeable drop in ratings after the first game that doesn't pick up until the first elimination game. The longer a series runs, habitually, the higher the ratings get, which suggests that a longer series is good for the game.
In fact, the length of the series has little bearing on the attention given. It's the importance of the game that matters the most.
Fans care less about non-elimination games because there is less at stake. By the nature of a seven-game series, Game 6 and Game 7 are always an elimination situation for one team, with the last game a winner-takes-all situation for both. Yet there is no guarantee fans will get a Game 6 or 7, and even though Game 4 or 5 can be elimination games, there is far less interest in a 3-0 or 3-1 series than those where both teams have pressure to win.
Game 3 of the World Series sees, on average, a 20 percent ratings drop from other games in the series. (Granted, over the last decade Fox has put Game 3 on Saturday night.)
What if Game 3 was the clincher? What if there was no Game 4? The ratings could be insane.
The team with more victories in the regular season could be the "home team" for the first and final games of a three-game neutral site World Series. The short series would immediately create more pressure on Game 1, as the victor of the first game has a huge advantage going into the next.
Game 2—not Game 4—becomes the first elimination game, creating additional interest beyond traditional baseball loyalists and fans in both cities. If there were a Game 3, the ratings would be enormous—at least as big as a traditional Game 7. Though, one might suggest (read: I am suggesting) the ratings would be better for a winner-takes-all Game 3 because a shorter World Series would create more national buzz and keep those without specific rooting interests more involved.
Just because the World Series has traditionally* been seven games doesn't mean it has to be forever. (*In 1903 and from 1919-1921 the World Series winner had five victories, not four. Before 1903, the World Series was an exhibition between three and 15 games long, depending on the year.)
There is nothing wrong with the World Series being seven games. Baseball is great, and the drama in the World Series is great too. It's not you, baseball. It's us.
Today's culture has changed. Year after year, it becomes more difficult for a sport predicated on local interest to attract fans to a prolonged championship series between two teams they don't care about—or in the case of these teams this year, find hard to like.
Surely Fox, or any network, benefits from a deep series, because even low-rated sporting events traditionally attract larger audiences than episodes of Sleepy Hollow or Bones—insert your own "Tim McCarver vs. The Walking Dead joke here"—but a shorter World Series could create more buzz within the sports world, and guaranteeing an elimination game within the first two contests would give Major League Baseball the closest thing it can get to a Super Bowl.
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