- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Television ratings for Major League Baseball’s division series were among the best in history, but now MLB and Fox must operate without two of their biggest cash cows and are facing the first league championship series since 1989 without an East Coast team.

Gone are the reliable Yankees, who snared strong nationwide interest during a stretch of LCS appearances in six of the last seven seasons. And gone are the Red Sox, who bolstered the ratings last season en route to their first championship in 86 years. This is the first time since 1997 that neither team has made the second round of the playoffs.

Now Fox, which is in the penultimate year of a $2.5 billion contract to broadcast all LCS and World Series games, will rely on fans from the Central and Western time zones to buoy ratings for games featuring the Astros, Cardinals, White Sox and Angels.

“The games are what they are,” Fox Sports spokesman Lou D’Ermilio said. “It’s not like we can strategize to make them better than the sports gods can make them.”

The good news for Fox is that ratings for the division series on Fox, ESPN and ESPN2 were solid. More than 3.6 million households watched Friday afternoon’s Game 3 between the Red Sox and White Sox, giving it a 4.1 Nielsen rating, the highest ever for a program on ESPN2. And ESPN said viewership was up 12 percent over last year for its eight broadcasts.

Monday night’s Yankees-Angels game on Fox scored an 8.9 rating and was the second highest-rated division series Game 5 ever. And Sunday night’s Game 4 between the Yankees and Angels even beat out ESPN’s “Sunday Night Football” broadcast, which is routinely the highest-rated sports program of the week. Fox reported its second-highest ratings ever for a division series and said viewership was up 25 percent over last year.

Perhaps even more encouraging is that games featuring the Angels have been noticeably higher than during the team’s run to the World Series title in 2002.

“The division series was terrific for us,” D’Ermillio said.

Without the Yankees and Red Sox now, Fox expects the remaining playoff games to snare smaller ratings than last year and 2003 but higher than 2002, which saw some of the lowest ratings ever. Chicago and Los Angeles are the second- and third-largest television markets, respectively, representing nearly 9 million television viewing homes. Houston is ranked in the top 10, and St. Louis routinely scores high ratings for baseball.

“It’s hard to replace New York and the exposure and the intangible nature of the Yankees,” said Dan Migala, publisher of a sports marketing trade publication in Chicago. “On the East Coast it might not be perfect, but good games and a good series will supplant that.”

In addition to hoping for close games and long series, Fox will rely on promoting story lines. In the ALCS, the Chicago White Sox will be going after their first World Series championship since 1917, and the Angels will be going for their second championship in four seasons. The NLCS between the Astros and Cardinals is a rematch of last year’s series that went seven games and includes two Cy Young Award candidates in the Astros’ Roger Clemens and Cardinals’ Chris Carpenter. There are plenty of familiar faces to keep fans interested, baseball officials said.

“Cleary, we’ve had a good run with the Yankees and Red Sox in the mix,” baseball spokesman Carmine Tiso said. “We’ve had great stories over the last few years, and if you have a compelling story, people will latch on to that.”

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