Baseball has its issues, but declining TV ratings isn’t one of them

The World Series remains the No. 1 non-NFL program on television, as it has been for the past four falls.

The Washington Nationals celebrate beating the Houston Astros, 6-2, in Game 7 of the World Series.
The Washington Nationals celebrate beating the Houston Astros, 6-2, in Game 7 of the World Series. –Washington Post photo by Jonathan Newton

It’s probably not the best case-building strategy to lead off a column suggesting everyone should chill out with their We’re Witnessing The Slow Death of Baseball takes with a short list of negative stuff about the sport these days.

But if we’re going to demand the baseball skeptics to apply context and genuine consideration to the reasons for baseball’s declining television ratings — and that’s exactly what we’re doing here — the least we can do is acknowledge a truth upfront: Baseball has critical fundamental issues it needs to address, and with greater urgency than it already has. The games are way too long. The increase in available information and the depth of analytical thinking and innovation has made the sport smarter and more efficient, from batting-average-shrinking defensive shifts to the three-true-outcome, launch-angle-driven offenses (walks, homers, strikeouts). But its aesthetics have been greatly damaged.

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But are declining ratings an issue? Not a serious one. Not in context.

The news that this year’s World Series — which concluded with compelling, entertaining Games 6 and 7, won by an appealing champion in the Washington Nationals — was the third-least-viewed in history likely launched a few more think-pieces and sports radio whinnying about how the sport is dying. Let me tell you, it can be tricky to read those things while simultaneously rolling my eyes.

On the surface, without that proper context, the numbers certainly didn’t look great. Per Nielsen Media Research, the World Series averaged 13.91 million viewers nationally, down 1.3 percent from last year’s five-game series between the Dodgers and Red Sox (14.1 million). This year’s Series earned an 8.1 overall rating and a 16 market share nationally.

The lowest-rated series remains the 2012 matchup between the Tigers and Giants (12.64 million). The Phillies’ win over the Rays in 2008 remains second-lowest (13.9 million; ah, if only David Price hadn’t blown away J.D. Drew in Game 7 of the ALCS. A Red Sox-Phillies series would have drawn some eyeballs).

The numbers for this year’s Game 7 didn’t fare well historically. The Nationals’ clinching 6-2 victory on Wednesday averaged 23.013 million viewers and drew a 13.1 rating nationally. That was down 18.5 percent — a significant dip, to be sure — from the last World Series Game 7 in 2017, when the Astros’ win over the Dodgers averaged 28.42 million viewers. And it was a steeper fall from the 40.047 million the Cubs and Indians drew for their epic Game 7 in 2016.

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Related: I remember the good old days of baseball, but I’m worried about its future

OK, enough with the seemingly discouraging numbers, and now for the way overdue context, which should be pretty obvious to anyone who has ever passed a Friday night watching Netflix and chilling: No one watches network or cable television like they used to. And compared to virtually every other television program other than a standard NFL game, baseball broadcasts are doing well.

This should be such an obvious truth, and yet it gets neglected or ignored in all of the decline-of-baseball narratives. There are so many options to watch television since the explosion of streaming services that it would take a miracle beyond our comprehension for baseball’s ratings to leap back to where they used to be.

Per research conducted by the Hollywood Reporter, Nielsen ratings for the 2018-19 broadcast networks — CBS, ABC, NBC, and Fox — averaged 28.5 million prime-time viewers, down 20 percent from 2014-15. The fall was even more pronounced in the adults 18-49 demo, which fell 35 percent.

Yet five years after the 2014 World Series, Fox’s ratings for Game 7 were down just 2 percent from the Giants’ victory then. Every other network would cut a bargain with the devil to be down such a low number from five years ago.

And Fox easily was the highest-rated television network on Wednesday night, averaging 7.35 million viewers across all prime-time programming and easily outdistancing runner-up NBC (1.49 million primarily for its “Chicago Fire’’/“Chicago PD’’/“Chicago Med’’ triumvirate).

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A few other points in baseball’s favor as a television entity:

■ The World Series remains the No. 1 non-NFL program on television, as it has been for the past four falls.

■ Game 7 was the sixth-most-watched network television show since the NFL opened its season, and the most-watched non-NFL program of 2019, drawing 20 percent more viewership than even the highest-rated scripted show, “This Is Us’’ on NBC.

■ Game 6 and Game 7 of the World Series were the first non-NFL programs to crack the list of the 25 most-watched programs this fall.

Bottom line: Yes, baseball has its issues. But its ratings, especially for big games, remain the envy of every network and outlet that doesn’t have the good fortune of airing an NFL game opposite it.

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