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The 2014 D-backs: Doing best on TV?

It has been a wretched season for the Diamondbacks, probably since before Opening Day when we lost our scheduled starter. They're currently 10 games worse than 2013 and last night's crowd was the smallest of the year. But their TV ratings appear to be holding up surprisingly well.

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There's a reason that sports is the holy grail of television these days: because it's one of the few things people actually consistently watch live these days. Sure, you can DVR the game and watch it afterward, but where's the fun in that - not least because you'd better also avoid all social media from first pitch, or risk having the outcome revealed, rendering the whole exercise pointless. As I learned during the World Cup, watching a game when you already know the result is the televisual equivalent of eating someone else's cold leftovers

The audience for a live event is a captive one, that can't fast-forward through the commercials, and will probably also be less likely to channel-surf. As far as advertisers are concerned, that's exactly the viewers they want, and sports audiences also tend to be there for the long-haul. The average baseball game this year lasts three hours and eight minutes: virtually the same length as the 2012 Academy Awards. Multiply that by the 150 times D-backs games will be screened on Fox Sports Arizona this season, and I'm fairly sure I can guarantee one thing: you are heartily sick of #PretzelLoveSongs.

Given all the issues the Diamondbacks have had this year, you might be surprised to hear that TV ratings for the team appear to be holding up rather well. From the start of the "continental" season on March 31, through July 24, the games shown on Fox Sports Arizona during prime time (7-11pm) had ratings better than any other channel in Phoenix. Note: not better than other cable channels, any other channel. Here's how the numbers stack up for the broadcasts, compared to the main four networks. [HH rating is the average percentage of households for the area, tuned in to that channel]

Rank Network HH rating
1 D-backs on FOX Sports Arizona 3.92
2 KPHO-5 (CBS) 3.40
3 KPNX-12 (NBC) 2.88
4 KNXV-15 (ABC) 2.71
5 KSAZ (FOX) 2.51

So, on any given night, more people in Phoenix are watching the D-backs on Fox Sports Arizona, than the other televisual choices. We aren't alone in that. Forbes recently gathered together ratings information for most of the teams (the Astros and, of course, the Dodgers are wading through disputes over coverage, so their games are unavailable to a significant number of households, while the Blue Jays are Canadian, and apparently nobody cares what they watch). Including Arizona, game coverage for a dozen of the 27 remaining teams are the top-ranked broadcast in their market.

Baseball does have a couple of advantages, both involving less competition. It's the summer, and that's traditionally the time of year when network TV goes into re-runs, knowing their viewers are outside. I dunno about you, but since 24: Live Another Day finished, my DVR has been largely untroubled by shows from the big four. Baseball also has a near monopoly on the general sporting audience, the period under study here being the off-season of the NBA, the NHL and, in particular, the ratings behemoth which is the NFL. Still. this seems a sharp contrast to the struggles of nationally-televised games, and even the World Series, to find an audience.

It was also interesting to compare overall ratings for the teams. The Diamondbacks, despite a season which I think most fans will be happy to see in the rear-view mirror, rank exactly in the middle, their 2014 rating of 3.92 putting them 14th. That's considerably higher than they rank in attendance at the park this year, where they sit 22nd in the majors (for now - with last night's the fifth-worst in team history, it's not a good sign for the rest of the year). It would seem to suggest fan interest in the team is still present locally, it just isn't being translated into butts on seats. I know we haven't been to anything like as many games at Chase this year, as we were in 2013.

There are a couple of other aberrations. The Indians sit at .500, and crowds have been woeful, at 18,327 per game - ahead only of the Rays, and not by much. But their TV broadcasts are doing amazingly well, with a 6.73 rating that's fifth-best in the major leagues. Conversely, the Angels are thriving both in the standings and at their park, but their broadcasts are pulling a 1.66 rating, less than half that of the D-backs. The only team doing worse are the White Sox, at 1.38. I guess watching Hawk Harrelson is about as appealing as #PretzelLoveSongs. [And I'm curious to know what eight networks White Sox broadcasts trail in viewership. Home Shopping?]

It seems likely TV viewing figures would be more volatile than attendance, lacking the safety net of season tickets bought before the season began. There's no equivalent to this pre-purchased commitment in the TV world, where every evening presents a new choice. Comparing numbers year on year, does show a significant performance factor, as you'd expect. The biggest increases have been in Milwaukee and Miami, both teams doing better than expected, with gains of 35% and 34% respectively. Meanwhile, the Rangers have dropped 47% as their team has, much like the D-backs, been crippled by injury (in comparison, crowds at Arlington are down less than 10%).

That's still better than the Dodgers, whose viewership has imploded by 70%. It's no coincidence that the team also still cannot be seen in 70% of the Los Angeles area. This is because Sportsnet LA is only available on Time Warner Cable, other companies having balked at the additional cost. It's the inevitable result of Time Warner's purchase of Dodgers TV rights, a 25-year deal that cost over eight billion dollars. Someone has to fund that, but the other service providers have not been willing to pass it on to their customers. One wonders whether this long-running issue might have a chilling effect on future TV deals, like the one the Diamondbacks will soon need to sign.

The Diamondbacks have not been immune to the effects of their own performance, and there has been a drop in viewership compared to last year. The overall figure is 3.6 (lower than the number above, which excludes games not in prime time). but that is down only two-tenths of a point from last season. In percentage terms, it's a 5.3% decrease, fractionally less than this year's drop in physical attendance at Chase (5.4%). For the reasons noted above, and in comparison to the savage falls suffered elsewhere by disappointing teams, it appears to be a pretty solid performance.

Going into the reasons for the local audience's apparent robustness would really be speculation. There's probably as many explanations are there are viewers, but it does seem the TV team are doing something right, with the ratings proving quite resilient, in the face of factors which would suggest a larger drop. Instead of pontificating as to the causes, I'm curious to hear what you think. Have your viewing patterns changed this season? Are you watching significantly less or about the same? And will you set foot in a Wendy's restaurant ever again?