Fox, ESPN Think It's America's Pastime Again

Cubs-Red Sox pairing could be Nielsen dream

At Fox, where the entire sports department is giddy with delight at how the playoff season has gone so far, ratings are up 29% over a year ago. "I'm just praying it's not the Red Sox and the Cubs," said one TV network executive last week on his hopes for who makes it to the World Series. That executive, of course, doesn't work for Fox.

The intoxicating potential matchup could provide Fox with one of the highest-rated World Series in the past 10 to 15 years. Neal Pilson, the former CBS Sports president who now runs his own sports marketing and consulting company, says a World Series contest between the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox might generate a 22 rating. One of Fox's competitors says it might be a 25 rating. Such viewer tallies for the Series haven't been seen since the 1980s.

But that's what makes baseball such a crapshoot. Match the underdog Cubs and the cursed Red Sox, and there's the potential for magic. But pit the San Francisco Giants and Anaheim Angels (last year's World Series matchup), and it's a recipe for record-low ratings.

"Fox and baseball kind of hit the trifecta here," says Pilson. "They have big-market teams: Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox. They have had electric games, and each division series went the limit," or close to it. Once you get that kind of momentum going, he adds, interest in how the whole story plays out should continue to build.

Steve Sternberg, senior vice president, director of audience analysis for Magna Global, offers another likely contributor to baseball's renewed popularity this year: the lackluster new prime time entertainment lineups. "There has been considerably less buzz about the new season than normal, which probably benefited baseball."

When Boston gets to the post-season, there's more talk than the average person should have to endure about "The Curse." But so far, the stars have been in alignment during the early rounds of the MLB postseason for both Fox and ESPN, which carried 13 division playoff series this season, up from the eight that were on ABC Family (inherited programming from the network's Fox Family incarnation) last year.

The ratings for ESPN's games this year soared 52%, aided no doubt by coverage of the underdog Chicago Cubs' stunning upset of the perennial National League champs the Atlanta Braves.

Game 4 of their divisional playoff series averaged a 6.73 household rating and was, according to ESPN, the most-watched division playoff game in the history of cable. The MLB games helped provide both ESPN and ESPN2 with their highest-rated weeks ever both in prime time and on a total-day basis.

Was it the games themselves or the change in networks that made the cable ratings spike? Len Deluca, senior vice president, programming strategy, ESPN, says it's both. "Luck is the residue of design. We put ourselves in a position to capitalize on what turned out to be the marvelously cooperative drama provided by the teams."

Fox realized a 19% increase in audience for its coverage of the five division series games that it carried this year and that averaged a 7.5 household rating and a 13 share, up from a 6.3/11 last year. Game 1 of the championship series (a number that blended the Cubs-Marlins and Yankees-Red Sox games because different markets chose one game or the other) was up 46% over the same game a year ago and had a higher rating than Games 1-6 of last year's World Series.

The big ratings have even sparked talk of possibly expanding the playoffs to include a second wild-card team and seven-game divisional series. Fox officials downplay such talk as probably not practical from a business standpoint. "It would be a challenge selling those extra games," says one network official.

So far this season, however, the network is in good shape with ad sales for baseball, with about 93% of the World Series inventory sold at rates of about $325,000 per 30-second spot, an increase of about 8% over last year.

Still, an expanded playoff scenario has some appeal to ESPN. Deluca says the network would be interested "in any opportunity that would help us reach a larger audience."