This year’s World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Bay Rays hasn’t lacked drama. Clayton Kershaw’s search for playoff redemption makes every pitch he throws on the highest stage compelling. There have been wild moments like Tampa Bay’s Manuel Margot attempt to steal home. And who could forget the chaotic ending to Game 4? The Rays walked off in the bottom of the ninth thanks to two Dodgers errors, including one at the plate.
But for all the excitement, Major League Baseball has run into the same problem that other leagues like the NBA and NHL have experienced the past few months: Not as many people are watching.
Ahead of Tuesday’s Game 6, this year’s World Series is on track to become the lowest-rated series for the sport since 1963 — when the numbers were first tracked by the Nielsen Research Company.
Through five games, the World Series has yet to even top Game 7 of this year’s NLCS between the Dodgers and the Atlanta Braves, which averaged 9.6 million viewers. Game 1 drew 9.1 million, Game 2 garnered 8.9 million, Game 3 slipped to 5.8 million and Game 4 rose to 7.2 million. Sunday’s Game 5 final number isn’t in yet, but the broadcast averaged a preliminary 8.5 million in the first hour, according to ShowBuzz Daily.
MLB’s crash in ratings falls in line with other sports that have lost viewership amid the pandemic. The NBA Finals drew an all-time low average of 7.5 million viewers over six games — a 49% decrease from last year, according to Sports Media Watch. The Stanley Cup Final wasn’t the NHL’s worst-ever rated finals, but the event averaged only 2.3 million. That’s a 61% drop from 2019 and the lowest since 2007. The NFL, a juggernaut compared to other sports, has seen a 13% dip through the first five weeks.
Before 2020, MLB’s lowest-rated World Series still averaged 12.6 million viewers (2012’s Giants-Tigers sweep). Last year’’s World Series averaged 13.9 viewers.
The reasons for this year’s viewership decline have been well debated. Television rating experts point to a shifting landscape in which overall sports consumption may be up though the time spent on those games may be less.
Others have brought up the shifting political landscape, with viewers either consumed by the news in an election year or put off by the increased social justice demonstrations in sports. The latter is what caused Sen. Ted Cruz and President Trump to decry the NBA, which embraced player activism against racial injustice with on-court messages, customized jerseys and even postponements of playoff games.
Baseball’s embrace of social justice, however, has been much more muted than the NBA. On Opening Day, players and coaches wore “Black Lives Matter” t-shirts and knelt for 60 seconds before the national anthem. “BLM” was also stenciled near the mound. But the message hasn’t been as prominent throughout the season.
Last week, the Marist Center for Sports Communication released a poll that found 46% of sports fans admitted to spending less time watching sporting events this year than in the past. The poll surveyed more than 1,500 people, 57% of whom identified as sports fans.
The poll also found that fewer people identified as fans of football, baseball, basketball and hockey than compared to a similar Marist poll taken in 2017. Baseball, for instance, saw a 14% decrease — with only 37% of fans saying they were a fan of the sport, down from 51% in 2017.
“For whatever reason, people just aren’t as devoting much time to watching sports that they used to,” said Jane McManus, the director of Marist Center for Sports Communication. “Is this a permanent drop off or is this because of the current era we live in? … A lot of our habits have changed.”
Overall sports consumption, though, may be on the rise Fox Sports executive Michael Mulvihill told the New York Times that since July 23, the day MLB returned, total live sports consumption is up 7% compared to last year.
“If you look at the sport-by-sport comparisons it would paint a scary picture, but if you aggregate it all and count the total time people are watching sports, it is completely normal, nothing for our business to be worried about,” Mulvihill told the New York Times.
That could be right. Last month, MLB extended its TV right deals with its national partners — TBS, FOX and ESPN — for more than $3 billion, marking a 45% increase.
The sport also appears to be doing well in some local markets. According to Forbes, MLB saw a 4% viewership jump during the regular season for its regional sports networks in 2020. While traditional ratings were down, the league got a boost thanks to streaming.
Still, on Sunday, when the Dodgers took the 3-2 series lead with a 4-2 victory, more people were watching CBS’ “60 Minutes” and NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.”
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