- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Baseball’s regular season ended less than two weeks ago, but the falling attendance and ebbing cable TV ratings from spring and summer could not be more of a distant memory.

With the ongoing playoffs already shaping up as one of the more scintillating postseasons in recent memory, Fox and ESPN reported record viewership for the divisional series round. Ratings for the early games of both League Championship Series have shown dramatic spikes over the comparable games from a year ago.

Fox, MLB, and national advertisers are all salivating at the prospect of a Chicago Cubs-Boston Red Sox World Series — an epic clash in which one of the two historically troubled franchises would end more than eight decades of well-documented heartache.

“This is just about as perfect a situation as you can imagine,” said Tim Brosnan, Major League Baseball executive vice president for business. “We have great matchups, great cities, great story lines and compelling games every single night. We’re showing again how every single pitch matters in the postseason, and it’s not just baseball fans getting caught up in this — it’s the population at large. This is the ultimate reality TV.”

With an average rating of 11.0, corresponding to nearly 11.9million homes, the LCS so far are beating ratings of corresponding games from 2002 by 41 percent. An average of 11.2million viewers a game watched the divisional round on Fox, 21 percent better than last year and easily the best showing for that round since Fox began airing baseball in 1996.

Game5 of the Boston-Oakland series Monday even beat out competing coverage of the Tampa Bay-Indianapolis thriller on “ABC Monday Night Football.”

On cable, average viewership of the divisional series soared 51 percent, in part due to a much-needed streamlining of coverage to ESPN and ESPN2 instead of the much-less heralded ABC Family. The divisional series also provided ESPN2 its four best single-event audiences in its 10-year history.

More important to youth-seeking advertisers, the playoffs have drawn viewership increases of least 20 percent among all segments of men and adults aged 18-49. Perhaps shockingly, Fox’s coverage of the first round of the playoffs also beat ABC’s coverage of the NBA Finals in June by 15 percent.

The story somewhat mirrors the first two rounds of the 2002 postseason, when ratings posted unexpectedly strong double-digit increases and similarly expanded their base among seemingly indifferent young viewers. The showing surprised many who forecast doom when the New York Yankees, Atlanta, Arizona and Oakland were all bounced from the first round.

But once Anaheim and San Francisco advanced to the World Series, many viewers east of the Mississippi tuned out, and the event plummeted to its worst-ever rating.

“That’s not going to happen this year,” said Ed Goren, Fox Sports president. “We’re going to be fine, regardless of the final matchup. This is about as calm as you’re ever going to find me in October.”

The split-schedule format for the LCS, where both American League and National League games are sometimes played simultaneously in prime time instead of one before the other, continues to draw heated criticism from many fans and pundits. But the early results give reason for MLB and Fox to stay with the format.

“This is all about getting the games to as many people as possible,” Brosnan said. “It’s simply very tough to do midweek day games at this time of year. But we do it [in the divisional series] because there we’re looking at the possibility of 20 games in seven days, and that’s before accounting for any delays due to rain.”

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