- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2002

We're in the thick of baseball's playoffs, and the four remaining managers aren't the only ones wringing their hands.
Fans, columnists and sports talk shows have all been up in arms about TV coverage of the playoffs on Fox, Fox Sports Net and ABC Family. Aren't the networks now in a real bind without the New York Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, Atlanta Braves and Oakland Athletics still playing? Isn't the playoff broadcast schedule, including some overlapping or directly competing game times, killing the audience? And aren't the late starting and finishing times for prime time games killing baseball's chance at reconnecting with young people?
The answers, at least judging by Nielsen Media Research ratings posted so far this fall, are no, no and no.
Perhaps even more surprising than the rise of Minnesota, Anaheim and San Francisco are the ratings from the first 10 days of the playoffs. The division series drew an average audience of 9.1million viewers, 23 percent higher than last year and the best showing since 1999. The first three days of the league championship series combined to draw an average rating of 7.7, 14 percent higher than last year. And double-digit percentage increases in viewership have been registered among males aged 18-34, males aged 18-49, teens aged 12-17 and women aged 18-54 for the entire playoffs thus far.
The bullish TV numbers arrive after a 6percent drop in overall major league attendance this season and falls in several national polls gauging general fan interest.
"Everybody is very relieved and very encouraged around here," said Vince Wladika, Major League Baseball spokesman. "The numbers are up overall, among kids, among teens, among all male demographics and even some women's demos. We still have a lot of baseball left. We obviously want to see good, competitive series the rest of the way. But we're definitely enthused about this start."
Executives at MLB and each of the TV networks readily admit the early-round TV schedule is an imperfect beast at best. Games in the four division series were spread around three networks, usually slotted at the last possible moment and sometimes resulted in attractive games airing against each other.
But amid all the confusion, fans still found the games.
"This discussion about the schedules was really for the talk radio show hosts and columnists to get worked up about," said Ed Goren, Fox Sports president. "The early-round schedule is like this every year. From our perspective, yes, the divisional series do present something of a logistical challenge, with regards to staffing and talent and all that. But we've had some great storylines develop and fans have responded."
And losing the mighty quartet of New York, Atlanta, Oakland and Arizona does not present as much of a hardship as many first thought. The Angels play in America's second-largest media market, the Giants in No.5 and the Twins in No.14. The Cardinals play in the country's 22nd largest market and bring up the rear among the remaining teams, but St. Louis routinely outperforms its size when it comes to watching baseball on TV.
"Life does exist after the New York Yankees," Goren said. "We have some large markets still directly involved, and what's particularly compelling to me is we have a chance at a true Midwest team in the World Series for the first time in a decade [Minnesota, 1991]. That's a whole part of the country that really might get re-engaged in this."
Even with the improved TV ratings, baseball continues to receive criticism for its preponderance of evening playoff games. The complaint certainly holds true for the all-prime time World Series, and scheduling at least one day game there should be done. But the NLCS had an afternoon game yesterday and Game5 of the ALCS is scheduled for 4p.m. today. And when comparing baseball's night-based playoffs to those in the NBA and NHL and the Super Bowl now lasting well past 10p.m. Eastern time each year, the schedule does not seem so odd.
The tougher test will be for baseball and Fox to first hold and then build upon the momentum generated in recent days. After the labor-driven chaos of the 2002 regular season and Fox Sports' 2001 losses of nearly $1billion, driven in part by unprofitable baseball broadcasts, two weeks of a unabashed good news is not enough.
"I think we're starting to really get on our way now," Goren said. "We were up [in playoff ratings] last year. We're up again even stronger this year. We're not coming off historic lows anymore. Perhaps we're now at just the beginning of a sustained rise for baseball."


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