Sunday, November 06, 2005

Don't bother touching that dial

It's the same damn thing on every channel! This is going to sound like I'm bashing baseball, but really I'm just looking at the shortsighted way in which it's marketed. And the reason we're discussing this at all is that I'm leading up to a football-related point. Honest.

Perhaps you've heard that the 2005 World Series was the least-watched World Series on record. There are plenty of explanations floating around out there, but when you strip out the yadda yadda yadda, they seem to boil down to this: Fans just won't get excited about anybody but the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and -- maybe -- Dodgers or Cardinals. Throw a World Series without one of those teams, and you're lucky if even the players' parents tune in.

Yeah, that sounds about right: Blame the fans. The ill-informed, small-minded, star-worshipping, front-running fans. Too ignorant to appreciate anyone but the big boys. Because they won't sit still for anyone else, the fans are the reason the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs are on national TV every Saturday, right?

Think, people. Why are ratings for World Series or other sports championship games so much higher than in the regular season? For one thing, everyone who has an interest in the sport is more likely to tune in to that game, unlike in the regular season, when the viewership is fragmented. But more important, casual fans are all more likely to watch, again unlike in the regular season, when they drop in and out and pay attention mostly to their favorite teams.

The casual baseball fan, not the hardcore fan, is who Fox Sports relies on to drive its World Series ratings. And this year, the casual fan apparently wasn't interested in the White Sox-Astros matchup. But how could that be? The Series pitted teams from the third- and fourth-largest cities in the United States! It was the Midwest vs. the Lone Star State! You had one team that hadn't won a title in its 45-year history against one working on an 88-year drought! How could fans not have realized that these were two teams with great pitching and clutch hitting and that this matchup was a recipe for compelling, nail-biting baseball? Why, you'd think the casual fan had never even had a chance to see ... either ... of these ... teams ... play ...

Hey.

Do you suppose it's possible that the casual fans would have been more likely to pay attention to the World Series if they had been able to see the White Sox and Astros in the regular season? These teams didn't come out of nowhere. The Sox were in first place wire-to-wire and had the AL's best record. The Astros were in the playoffs last year, plus they had Roger Clemens dominating again at age 73. Yet which teams did we see week after week on Fox's and ESPN's baseball coverage? Yankees, Red Sox, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Red Sox, Yankees, Red Sox, Red Sox. Oh, and the Yankees. Casual baseball fans follow their favorite team during the season. Their best chance to see what else is happening around the major leagues is the national telecasts on Fox and ESPN. If those outlets -- fully endorsed by Major League Baseball -- take the position that the only teams of note are the Yankees and Red Sox, is it any wonder that casual viewers believe any World Series without either of those clubs will be a stinker?

You can probably guess where we go from here. The networks look at the World Series ratings, which obviously show that no one wants to see any team but the Yankees and Red Sox. (Right? Right?) Next year's broadcast schedule is drawn up to ensure that all 19 of their games against each other are shown coast-to-coast and that every other nationally televised game involved either New York or Boston, or maybe the Cubs or Dodgers or Cardinals. And then, next fall, when two totally unknown, faceless teams -- say, the 101-61 Cleveland Indians and the 95-67 San Diego Padres -- square off in the World Series, baseball can scratch its head and grouse about how no one seems to care about any team except the Red Sox and Yankees. (And we will continue to not mention that the previous record for the lowest-rated World Series was held by the 2000 all-New York "Subway Series," which the sports media absolutely adored and the rest of the world utterly ignored.)

And turn, turn, turn goes baseball's big wheel of circular reasoning.

Now we get to the football-related point in all of this. The most highly anticipated game of the 2005 NFL season arrives this weekend: the Indianapolis Colts at the New England Patriots. The Colts and Pats will be playing on the league's biggest regular season stage -- Monday Night Football -- and the game has been the subject of intense discussion across all media. Hardcore fans will be watching. Casual fans will be checking this one out, too. And they'll all be watching a team from the league's sixth-smallest market, Indianapolis. In fact, the Colts will be on MNF three times this year. The Pittsburgh Steelers, representing the league's 10th-smallest market, will also play on Monday three times this year. Meanwhile, San Francisco, representing the fifth-largest media market in the country, will not play on Monday night at all in 2005. Nor will these other teams from the 10 largest metropolitan areas: the New York Giants, the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions and the Houston Texans.

Those big-market teams will not play on Monday night because they weren't any good last year. Smaller-market teams such as Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Denver, Kansas City, Green Bay and Minnesota will play on Monday night because they were good last year and were expected to be good again this year. (Note that I said "expected." The Nov. 21 Vikings-at-Packers game should be one for the ages.) Big-market teams deemed "good" in the preseason, like the Eagles and Falcons, will be on MNF. Smaller-market teams like the Browns and Bucs who were declared "bad" will not. This is the way it works in the NFL: The league promotes its best teams, regardless of where they happen to play.

The NFL's insistence that its most prominent games be played by its best teams, rather than its biggest markets, insulates the league. What's the highest-rated Super Bowl ever? It's still Super Bowl XVI: San Francisco against Cincinnati -- and this was before the 49ers had any kind of national following. What was the most-watched title game (total number of viewers, rather than largest percentage)? Super Bowl XXXII: Green Bay vs. Denver. Small markets both, and yet, because the league had allowed these teams to earn stardom, the anticipation building up to the game was epic. Now, what was the lowest-rated Super Bowl in a decade? Super Bowl XXXV, Baltimore against the New York Giants.

The NFL wants to be in the biggest markets, and it wants successful (meaning "profitable" more than "winning") franchises in those markets because that means more money for everyone. But in the way it has marketed itself, the NFL has ensured that high ratings and high profits are not contingent on the best teams being in the biggest markets. And for that, I'm sure Fox and CBS and ESPN and this year ABC and next year NBC are eternally grateful.

P.S.: An even more striking contrast exists with the NBA, whose marketing scheme consists of pumping up its stars, overexposing its big-market teams and then praying that one or the other makes it to the Finals. It works great ... until you wind up with two teams in the Finals -- say, Detroit and San Antonio -- that you forgot to promote because they lack star power and stress fundamentals over flash. Then you're in trouble. Green Bay vs. Denver produced the most-watched Super Bowl ever. Milwaukee vs. Denver in the NBA Finals would be an unmitigated ratings disaster. I mean, ask yourself: How many times have you seen the Lakers or Knicks on TV, even when they weren't any good? Now how many times have you seen the Milwaukee Bucks on TV, ever?

1 comment:

Rich Lanthier said...

I agree with (you (as always!). What also made me nuts though, about this years baseball playoffs, obviously early on, is they were on 70 different stations, and often competingtimes. I am a baseball fan and I was always confused as to what was happening when. Doesn't help build momentum for the series at all as I might have really liked to follow ChiSox or astros (less likely, I hate TX). Anyway, hope this late night post makes sense...

r