Wednesday night marked the first installment of this year’s Fall Classic. The 2011 World Series features a counted-out bunch of pro’s pros squaring off against the league’s most explosive and exciting lineup. Chris Carpenter’s masterful work on the mound led the St. Louis Cardinals to a 3-2 win over the Texas Rangers while capturing the hearts and minds of, well, more people than the ones who watched Criminal Minds.
Fox came away with an 8.7 rating for Game 1 — the second-lowest opening game number ever and the fifth-lowest rated game in Series history. From the moment the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies were eliminated from the playoffs, ratings became a concern. For the second straight season, Fox was stuck with two small(er)-market franchises sure to yield another dismal set of numbers. Last year’s average rating of 8.4 over five games tied the worst figure in history.
The truth is, aside from a Yankees-Phillies blip in 2009, World Series ratings have dropped precipitously over the past few seasons. The first major falloff took place from 2001 to 2002, as the Yankees and Diamondbacks were replaced by the Giants and Angels. Predictably, ratings shift from game to game, with the highest viewership showing up for a Game 7. Both the ’01 and ’02 Series went to 7, but while the Yanks netted a 23.5 (39.1 million viewers), Giants-Angels managed just a 17.9.
It should be easy to explain the dip, by pointing to the same reason shows like Mad Men can stay on the air. Cable, DVR, Hulu, Netflix and the like have fragmented audiences to a point that today’s numbers are unrecognizable by the standards of even a few years ago. But it's not that simple here.
If the game’s declining popularity was due mostly to a fall in viewership numbers across the board, how does MLB reconcile the biggest spike the NBA Finals saw in seven years with its performance in June? From 1999-2009, the World Series comfortably outperformed its basketball counterpart. In a celebrity-driven era, the NBA rode its massive star power to claim the role of America’s no. 2 sport. It’s a good thing the league is taking advantage of that.
The problem of how few people are watching baseball is compounded by who actually makes up the audience that does. Game 1 of the World Series won the night on Wednesday, but it was Modern Family that drew the biggest numbers from 18-49 demographic. The median age of World Series watchers for Game 1 was 52, with men 50 and up, the only demographic to gain viewership from last season, making up a record high 35 percent of the total audience. Compare that to Game 1 of the NBA Finals, where the median age was just 40. A million fewer men ages 18-49 took in Game 1 of the Series. Baseball’s audience isn’t only dwindling. It’s getting older too.
Texas’ 2-1 win Thursday night should be a bit of relief for Fox. As things stand now, the network will be counting on six or seven games to counteract the shrinking game-by-game audience. For now, Fox execs can toast to the fact that despite it all, they still beat the hell out of Whitney.
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