There is a general assumption that Major League Baseball and Fox were pulling for a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series, and that they are now ticked off because the Phillies clinched last night and the Rays are on the verge of the pennant. And it’s true that a Manny-back-to-Boston storyline might have attracted some interest.
It’s really kind of lazy, however, to assume that MLB or its broadcasters root for certain teams or players.
Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox draw big numbers, and it’s nice to have teams from bigger markets like Chicago and LA in the mix. But every executive I’ve ever spoken to has told me that they care less about teams and more about the competitiveness and length of the series’. Close, tense games keep people watching, and more people tend to tune in the deeper a series goes. I assure you that MLB, Fox and TBS may be annoyed at how things are shaping up in the playoffs, but it’s primarily because none of the playoff series have gone the distance.
Dodgers over Cubs, 3 game sweep.
Phillies over Brewers, 4 games.
Red Sox over Angels, 4 games
Rays over ChiSox, 4 games.
Phillies over Dodgers, 5 games.
Rays lead Red Sox, 3-1.
So if the Rays win tonight or tomorrow, none of the playoff series will have gone to a sudden death final game. That’s bad for ratings.
I don’t have full ratings numbers for all recent playoff series (and analyzing the LCS and Division Series numbers in any fair way is hard because now you’re dealing with a cable and broadcast network, plus a mix of prime time and afternoon games.)
But a look at World Series numbers may offer some further illustration of this point. The top ten most-watched World Series games in this decade are as follows:
2001, Game 7. Diamondbacks over Yankees. 39 million viewers.
2002, Game 7. Angels over Giants. 30.8 million.
2004, Game 4. Red Sox over Cardinals. 28.8 million.
2004, Game 2. Red Sox over Cardinals. 25.4 million.
2004, Game 3. Red Sox over Cardinals. 24.4 million.
2001, Game 4. Yankees over Diamondbacks. 23.7 million
2001, Game 2. Diamondbacks over Yankees. 23.6 million.
2001, Game 3. Yankees over Diamondbacks. 23.4 million.
2003,. Game 6. Marlins over Yankees. 23.23.
2004, Game 1. Red Sox over Cardinals. 23.17 million.
There are a few things to note about this list. First, the Red Sox-Cards series rated so highly because Boston was going for its first World Series title since 1918 and had just come off a historic comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS. So there was an unusual level of attention placed on that series. Nevertheless, none of those games in 2004 rated anywhere near the Game 7’s in 2001 and 2002.
I won’t pretend that the presence of the Yankees in the 2001 World Series wasn’t a factor. The role of 9/11 also can’t be underestimated. But I will argue that overall viewership was boosted by the competitiveness and drama of each game. Game 7 was not decided until the last at-bat, Game 4 went 10 innings and featured a game-tying and game-winning homers off D’backs closer Byung-Hyun Kim, and Game 2 featured a complete game shutout by Randy Johnson. Meanwhile, Game 6, 15-2 thumping by Arizona, didn’t make this list.
It’s also worth pointing out that aside from the Sox-Cards series in 2004, no clinching game that took place prior to Game 6 made the top ten.