Hail to the Lonely Victors - Broadcasting & Cable

Hail to the Lonely Victors

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The folks at Fox must be wishing that the World Series would at least have gone the full seven games. Although no World Series ever got lower ratings than the four-game sweep of the Houston Astros by the Chicago White Sox, ratings usually improve as the games progress, and, had the Astros shown any sign of life, Fox would have gotten some spiked Nielsens to end the week.

The current version of neither the Astros nor the White Sox is well-known, even by ardent fans. Indeed, after winning their first World Series since 1917, the White Sox probably still aren't the most popular baseball team in their own hometown.

Nielsen says the games averaged only 17.2 million viewers. That's down from 25.4 million a year ago, when Fox luckily had the Boston Red Sox to play with. The Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since 1918, and its whiny fans never let anybody forget it. So when they went up against the St. Louis Cardinals, the games had a good plotline. The Curse of the Bambino and all that.

The futility of the White Sox actually exceeded Boston's close-but-no-cigar backstory, but this year, the “pathetic” angle seemed stale.

Economics demand that baseball playoffs show up in prime time. Fox pays $400 million a year to air weekly games and most of the championship-round games. (The contract ends after next season.) Even the “low-rated” games will be among last week's most popular shows on television. But viewer disinterest made the series less of a promotional platform to hype all Fox series that can now get down to business. And the low ratings may have fallen below Fox's projection to advertisers. Not that Fox expected to make money; the World Series is an “image-builder.”

It's tempting and yet too easy to say this World Series shows the dire straits of baseball. In fact, almost all sports ratings are down. Baseball teams, meanwhile, had record attendance this year: More than 73 million fans filled the stadiums.

It's also tempting to say that, if some World Series games were shown in the daytime again, a generation of schoolkids would discover the grandeur of the fall classic and make baseball popular again. We doubt it would make a difference. Kids just don't go outside anymore. They're not ignoring just baseball. Even bikeriding is down 31% from a decade ago. Baseball is no longer America's pastime; computer games are.

The truth is, the White Sox and the Astros are extreme examples of no-name teams that just so happened to have played a marvelous World Series, even if it was a sweep. Baseball is fine. So is Fox, even with its new Nielsen low. As one sports executive told us last week, broadcast networks can't profit off baseball unless the Red Sox play the Chicago Cubs—in perpetuity.

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