The last time the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, television had not yet been invented.
In 2016, TV networks are counting on the longtime lovable losers to go all the way and bring viewers and ad revenue with them.
Baseball could use that kind of once-in-a-century boost. While its audience remains loyal even through commercial breaks and each October often beats many primetime series in total viewers, the narrative of the onetime national pastime has lately been a little downbeat. Linear ratings have been under pressure, with successive World Series this decade all falling short of 2009’s New York Yankees-Philadelphia Phillies matchup. It is hard to dispute that the NFL and NBA have elbowed baseball out of its longtime place at the center of American pop culture, especially among younger viewers.
Despite all of the headwinds, the Cubs could prove a potent tonic and provide plenty of must-see October viewing in the vein of last decade’s phoenix-like rise of the Boston Red Sox. The Sox ended the 86-year “Curse of the Bambino” in 2004 by vanquishing the hated New York Yankees en route to a World Series title, two more championships since and a division-leading team this year. In the regular season, Chicago had the best record in baseball, making the possibility of breaking a winless streak that dates back to 1908 the dominant story line going into the postseason.
“If we get the Cubs to keep going and get into the World Series and face the Red Sox, we’re going to be talking some great ratings that would rival our best over the last five to 10 years,” says Neil Mulcahy, executive VP of sports sales at Fox Sports.
Fox has aired the World Series annually since 2000, and this year will carry the bulk of the National League playoffs on its broadcast and cable networks. ESPN has the National League wild card game. And MLB Network will air two games during the NL Divisional Series. All American League playoff games will be on Turner’s TBS.
“We’re excited about continuing to innovate and try some new things as we push forward to try to bring fans the best viewing experience possible for the postseason,” says Matt Mosteller, VP of content, Turner Sports.
Streaming Line Drives
Online streaming has helped bring fans to the game, and it is one area where Major League Baseball has outpaced other sports over the past 15 years. Its MLB Advanced Media unit has been a leader in streaming, not just baseball games and other sports but providing the backbone for offerings like HBO Go. Such is the mojo of MLBAM of late that Walt Disney Co. over the summer paid $1 billion for a one-third stake in its technology division, BAMTech.
TV executives see streaming as a way to reach more fans—particularly young ones. Streaming might have put a dent in NBC’s broadcast ratings for the Olympics, but Fox doesn’t see streaming cutting into broadcast and cable ratings.
“We look at it being additive,” says Mark Evans, senior VP of sports strategy at Fox Sports. “We want to be in all those spaces and provide the best viewing experience across the board. We’re trying to offer the millennials and early adopters that are in that space as much variety as possible.”
During Turner’s games, MLB will be providing Postseason.TV as a companion. Postseason. TV will deliver up to 10 live alternative camera angles. Viewers can watch up to four angles simultaneously during the game. They can also watch batting practice. Postseason. TV is available via desktops and mobile through the MLB.com At Bat app. Postseason. TV costs $4.99, and will carry no ads.
Baseball ad sales on Fox are up about 30% from last year, according to sources, and with popular big market teams heading in to the postseason, revenue there could eclipse last year’s sales as well.
“Everybody’s excited about the teams and the matchups that are presenting themselves,” says Mike Law, executive VP, managing director, video investments at the Dentsu Aegis Network. “You’ll have some in the Northeast, you’ll have the Cubs in there, and the West Coast. “The markets set up really well for a good baseball postseason.”
For all of its vulnerability, baseball attracts live viewers who are engaged and tend not to skip commercials.
“Advertisers still really like the environment. It’s got many, many positives to it, the time of year, the live nature of the ratings, the audience profile, the size of the ratings,” Law says.
Last year, ratings for the World Series were up, despite the Kansas City Royals beating the New York Mets in only five games. Usually, the longer the series, more people tune in as the suspense builds. The Royals-Mets series generated an 8.7 household rating, up from the seven-game series between the San Francisco Giants and the Royals, which drew an 8.2.
Ad revenue for last year’s MLB playoffs rose 23% to $161.2 million, according to Kantar Media. But World Series ad revenue was down 5% to $246.7 million. The revenue loss from having a shorter series was partly offset by numerous pitching changes and games that went into extra innings, which allowed Fox to air as many as 100 commercials per game, up from the approximately 70 that air in a typical nine-inning game.
This year commercials are going for in the ballpark of $550,000, up slightly from last year, market sources say. Fox’s sales are said to be ahead of last year’s pace, with strong sales coming during the upfront.
“We continue to see dollars move into live sports,” says Fox’s Mulcahy.
“We’re seeing interest from more categories than we ever have before,” adds Law. “You’ve got your traditional players, with MLB sponsor like MasterCard and Anheuser-Busch. We’re also seeking more interest from nontraditional players, retailers and other brands, and it’s because the ratings are a really good story and the marketplace is a little bit tight.”
One big change in the sponsorship lineup at Fox is Ford moving in as sponsor of Fox’s pregame shows. Ford replaces rival Chevrolet, which remains an official sponsor of Major League Baseball but has reduced its commitment to spending on TV.
Like last year, Taco Bell will be running a stolen-base promotion during the World Series. If someone steals a base, viewers will be able to “steal” breakfast at the Mexican chain’s restaurants, where certain morning items will be free.
Turner is also about 80% sold out, with prices up by high-single digits, says Jon Diament, executive VP Turner Sports ad sales.
Diament says postseason baseball is a unique property, generating high ratings in primetime during the fourth quarter, a period of strong demand for both upfront and scatter ad buyers. Because the playoffs are unpredictable, they often create last-minute opportunities for advertisers looking to cash in when series go to a deciding game, when engagement and ratings peak.
With its breaks every half inning, viewers are more comfortable with commercials during baseball, Diament said. And Turner did a study with Nielsen based on last year’s playoffs that showed that advertising return-on-investment was 15% higher for quick-serve restaurants in postseason than at other times.
Based on credit-card receipts, people exposed to commercials bought more burgers, Diament said.
A good amount of Turner’s postseason ad inventory is taken up by multiyear baseball sponsors including Hankook Tires, which will present the A.L. wild card Game; T-Mobile, presenting the division series; the Chrysler Pacifica for pregame shows; and Lincoln Motor Co. for postgame shows.
Turner sells ads on its TV Everywhere stream separately from TV, but most TV advertisers buy packages that include some streaming ads, he said.
MLB Pushes Distribution
Baseball postseason games are not just powerful for advertisers. MLB Network is using its playoff games to make more viewers aware of the channel’s programming and possibly boost its distribution.
“This will be our fifth year airing two Division Deries games, and for this network those two Division Series games are in many ways our World Series,” says Rob McGlarry, president of MLB Network. “They are always our most viewed programming of the year.”
This year, MLB Networks worked with its distributors to expand carriage around its playoff games with a free preview of the network Oct. 6-11. Distributors including AT&T U-Verse, Comcast, Cox, DirecTV, Dish Network, RCN and Verizon FiOS have agreed to carry the MLB Network preview.
McGlarry says the preview will give MLB Network 90% penetration in the markets most likely in the National League playoffs. Nationally, MLB Network will be in more than 15 million additional homes during the preview.
“These division series games will be available to more fans than any of our prior games. I think that’s a credit to our distributors for recognizing how much interest there was in these games,” McGlarry says. Beyond the games, viewers might get hooks on the network’s other programming. “We always see that during the postseason, viewership goes up. If we can give them a taste of the network, maybe they’ll call their cable or satellite provider and say ‘I’d like to get that extra package because MLB Network is so great.’”
This has been MLB Network’s second-best season in terms of ratings, with election news and the Olympics shaving viewers from last year’s record run, McGlarry says. Financially, “we’re up compared to last year,” he adds.
Geico will be the sponsor of MLB Network’s N.L. division series games this year, as it has been since 2012. Toward the end of the season, Amazon Web Services has been sponsoring the network’s regular-season pennant-race games.
McGlarry says there has been a lot of advertiser demand for MLB Network’s postseason. “The Cubs are a special story. The other teams—the Dodgers, Cardinals, the Giants and Mets—they’re also from big markets where there’s a lot of advertiser interest.”
Catching Games Online
Interest in baseball has moved online, and most of the postseason will be streamed. Most of the streaming is being done on a TV Everywhere, authenticated basis. Those viewers won’t count in the traditional ratings, but the networks still see streaming as a plus.
Fox’s games will be on Fox Sports Go, with streaming ads sold separately.
“I think we’re well prepared to monetize the streaming audience as it grows. We’ve been building a bridge to that streaming and digital future,” says Michael Mulvihill, executive VP of research and strategy for Fox Sports. “It’s just a matter of how many people are going to cross it and when. We’re ready for it if and when it happens.”
MLB Network will also stream its network via TV Everywhere with participating distributors and to authenticated subscribers via baseball’s MLB At Bat app.
“It’s 2016 and not everyone is home and people watch games on their phones and iPads,” says McGlarry. “We’re very fortunate to have MLBAM. When we wanted to [stream], those guys are better than anybody.”
At Bat is the top sports league app for streaming. Fans streamed 9.4 billion total minutes on At Bat from August 2015 to August 2016 according to comScore. That compares to 3.2 billion minutes for NFL Mobile and 996 million for the NBA.
No matter how they watch, the Cubs are likely to be the prime attraction.
“Oh yeah, everybody’s kind of rooting for them to do well. They’re having a great year,” says media buyer Law. “I’m a diehard Red Sox fan, so I’m kind of picturing this Red Sox-Cubs World Series. That would be pretty awesome.”