World Series average TV ratings, since 1986 (via Wikipedia)
Game 7 of the 2001 World Series was watched by 23.5% of US households. No World Series game since the Diamondbacks came into existence has been near that level of viewers: the nearest was the Red Sox clinching their first title for forever in 2004, which reached 18.2%. The last time there was a Game 7, two seasons ago, only 14.7% of households tuned in. There have been occasional spikes: this year's series at least did a little better than last, when the third game in the Tigers-Giants series polled a particularly dismal 6.1%. But as the graph above shows, the trend has been unmistakably down. I think there are a few reasons for this.
Increasing breadth of choice
The splintering of the audience is nothing new, of course. As long ago as 1999, Robert Samuelson wrote, "The major TV networks, as we know them, are dead. You need not worry that ABC, CBS and NBC will vanish, but their central role in American life is finished." Of course, they're still going, but even the top programs each year are seen by a shrinking percentage. Alternatives, like a broader spectrum of cable/satellite channels, the Internet, video games and Netflix, have all combined to chip away at the core audience for the national stations which have the ability to buy rights to large events.
Even the behemoth which is the Super Bowl is not immune: of the 10 games with the highest ratings, only two took place since 1986. However, it's important to note that this decline has been countered by an increase in population. While this year's Super Bowl had the same rating as the 1980 version, it was actually watched by over 32 million more people. Looking at "share" - the percentage of TVs in use that watch a program - as opposed to rating (% of households) perhaps gives you a better idea of the splintering issue. When the Cardinals and Red Sox played in 2004, every game had a 24% share or better; this year, with the same teams, the high was 18%.
Lack of big-market success
The large cities which would power big World Series ratings haven't had very much success. If you look at the four biggest cities in America (New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston), in the past decade, their seven major-league teams have combined for only three of the possible 20 World Series participants. You can expand the list of cities, to go all the way down to #13, and the only additional pennant winner you'll find is Philadelphia. The World Series this year was a battle between #21 (Boston) and #58 (St. Louis).
Obviously, there are Red Sox fans who don't actually live in the city, and the games continue to be blockbusters in their own market: Game 6 got a 55.2 rating in Boston, and when they got the last out, 86% of all TVs were watching. Even in St. Louis, who could hope for no better than forcing another game, it drew a 37.9 rating. But there's no denying that a Yankees-Dodgers World Series would be a significantly bigger draw. That's not just for the fans of each team, but for those who hate them, praying for a meteor strike to wipe both out. If you're looking to engage neutral eyeballs, a good World Series is like a good movie: the villain is every bit as important as the hero.
Not enough drama
You won't be surprised to hear that winner-take-all Game 7's are big ratings winners, far and away the most popular in the series, because fans of both teams are assured of a definite conclusion on the night (just like the Super Bowl!). Since 1997, where we've seen one, they've received an average of a 49% bump over the Game Six ratings. And Game Six, in turn, is usually seen by more than any preceding game. However, there has been only one Game 7 in the last decade, and on just two other occasions have we even reached that Game 6, where excitement starts to build. As we say last year, sweeps kill ratings, unless the Red Sox are clinching their first title in a lifetime.
It seems an increasing trend for teams to be more focused on their local market, with little or no effort to attract fans anywhere else. Part of this is about coverage: remember when Braves games could be seen all over the country on TBS? That stopped in 2007, but succeeded in giving the team a national presence which was unrivaled. The Cubs' similar deal with WGN in Chicago was supposed to go on through 2022, but as Bleed Cubbie Blue discusses, the Cubs exercised an opt-out clause and the contract ends next year. The odds are, sooner or later, they'll end up going the cable route as well.
Again, this is in sharp contrast to the NFL, where typically four, and as many as six of the roughly 15 games per week, are screened, coast-to-coast and over free-to-air television. For baseball, you get Fox Saturday baseball and will like it. Basic cable adds the WGN package mentioned above, then there's ESPN and the blessed alternative to that which is the MLB Network. But you're still way short of being able to see the 30% of games played offered by the NFL, without shelling out for MLB.tv.
Signs of hope?
For the entire month of postseason baseball, viewership surged 20% across FOX, TBS and MLB Network, the best year-over-year increase since 2009... The 2013 season was the first big-game ratings sweep for the league since 2001. Viewership increased for every round of the postseason, in addition to the All-Star Game.
However, part of that surge is a particularly dismal performance last year: if you're looking for a glass half-empty version of the above, I present to you this headline, World Series TV Ratings: Game 2 Overnight Third-Worst Ever. The story points out that, "This year’s Cardinals/Red Sox match-up is only the second World Series in history to earn a single-digit overnight for Games 1 and 2, joining last year’s Tigers/Giants series." Never mind the Super Bowl, Game 1 barely outdrew Monday Night Football, featuring a particularly ugly game between the Minnesota Vikings and New York Giants.
We've also seen similar blips before: 2011 was better than 2010, and ratings for 2009 were up on 2008. We haven't seen consecutive World Series with increased ratings since 2003-2004, so I'd be inclined to wait and see what happens at the end of 2014, and whether or not the recovery continues: