Is the World Series still relevant in an NFL world? Our viewership predictions and more

If you want a small indicator that we live on a very different planet than we have in years past, we invite you to check out the TV ratings for the World Series in the 1980s and 1990s. (We could send you back further afield, but let’s make it a semi-modern quest.) 1980, a World Series played by the same team in this year’s Fall Classic (the Phillies in beat the Royals in six games) averaged 42.3 million viewers on NBC. Fast forward 13 years later. Toronto’s 4-2 series against the same Phillies averaged 24.7 million viewers — a series in which the network didn’t benefit from having two home markets.

Since then, our ratings have seen some outliers as the Red Sox (2004, average viewership of 25.4 million) and Cubs (2016, 22.85 million viewers) ended a long drought. But since 2016, World Series viewership has trended downward as viewing options expand and household incomes for network and cable TV continue to decline. Last year, the six-game Warriors-Astros World Series averaged 12.02 million TV and streaming viewers. On Fox alone, the series averaged 11.75 million viewers. That’s 20 percent higher than the average number of 9.77 million the Los Angeles Dodgers beat the Tampa Bay Rays in six games during the pandemic-altered 2020 season. However, that’s down from the Washington Nationals’ seven-game win over the Astros in 2019, which averaged 13.91 million TV and streaming viewers.

If you want a number that blows your mind, consider this: Game 7 of the 1991 World Series drew 50.34 million viewers to CBS. That’s about the same viewership (50.42 million) as last year’s NFC championship game between the Rams and 49ers (including Fox, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports streaming platforms, NFL Digital and Yahoo Sports properties).

We sometimes have questions in this area about why sports fans should care about a sport’s ratings. This is a very fair question. But “should” is not the right word here. You care what you care about. The more interesting question is, how does MLB’s ratings affect me as a viewer? At a basic level, you need some sort of marker to measure a sport’s popularity, and viewership has long been a decent (albeit flawed) indicator of where a sport is in the American public.

So what can we expect from this year’s Phillies vs. Astros game, the ratings, and how the World Series plays out in the larger sports media context? Let’s check.

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Dickie: A self-evident thing to think about World Series ratings — and it’s not an original idea: Fox desperately wants the series to go longer, because length is ultimately the biggest driver of World Series ratings. You want the public to invest in a series, especially those who don’t live in Philadelphia or Houston. Turn off game help. Obviously, the game every night is a factor. I’ll play with your mind, Bill. How do you see the series from a sports media or business perspective?

World Series viewership by game since 2010

game 1 game 2 game 3 game 4 Game 5* Game 6* Game 7*

13.6 million

131,900

125,800

135,200

153,500

177,800

280,400

* — 11 of 12 series go to Game 5, Game 8 to Game 6, Game 5 to Game 7

Shea Butter: I think it’s a really interesting touchstone for where the baseball and television industries are right now. As we all know, it’s the Wild West, with changing consumption habits – we have five age groups, from the Silent Generation to Generation Z, who consume media in very different ways. The coalition and its network partners are trying to appease as many people as possible — no easy task. But while the numbers are interesting and could tell a different story depending on how we interpret them, in the end, MLB has been paid for by the network. The pay is good. I’m sure Fox and its advertising partners will be happy unless the ratings drop.

Dickie: Philadelphia is clearly a great sports city and an important TV market. It is Nielsen’s fourth largest designated market area in the United States, with a population of 2.9 million TV households. The last time they competed in the World Series was in 2009. They’re going to attract a huge audience locally (obviously), and I think they have some national appeal given their unlikely appearance. Bryce Harper is a well-known star. The five-game Phillies-Padres NLCS series averaged 4.66 million viewers on Fox and FS1, down from 2021 TBS’ Dodgers-Braves series (5.2 million), which ran six games and was the most viewed since 2018 Most LCS.

Houston is also a top 10 DMA and they have a strong fan base. But I feel like the Astros are going to the World Series for the third time in four years, and that makes me feel a little bit of national fatigue. (I’m not even sure if they’re tied.) I think the game has some challenges, including competition. If it’s a skit, I think we average about 12 million viewers. A long series can reach 14 million. What do you think?

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Shea Butter: On paper, the Yankees-Dodgers series is ideal for collecting raw eyeball totals. But it’s not like Philadelphia and Houston are remote outposts. They are a major market for avid Astros and Phillies fans. As you pointed out, a long, competitive series generates the best audience and earns you key presentations. Fox, MLB and everyone else involved in the World Series dreams of winning Game 9 with a major in Game 7. The nightmare was a four-game blowout.

MLB and networks crafting compelling storylines to keep things interesting can also help boost viewership, especially among casual fans who may struggle to name players for any team. Do these teams have household names to attract regular fans?

Finally, Games 2 and 7 are on Saturday, so there’s a potential for college football. You can also have games 3-6 on school nights, which are unavoidable, but not ideal for building close relationships with the youngest potential fans—a consideration for leagues with the oldest fan bases. There were no games on Sunday, so MLB avoided a major confrontation with the NFL. The third game of Halloween does face “Monday Night Football.” I think the seven-game series averaged 13 million. Sweep, maybe 11.5 million.

Dickie: One of the things I often think about when it comes to baseball is how the alphabet soup of regular season national media partners (Apple, Amazon, ESPN, Fox, MLB Network, NBC/Peacock, Warner Bros. Discovery) affects postseason interest. I find MLB’s media rights agreement the least fan friendly of any major sport. Yes, you’ll always know how your local team is doing in the playoffs because you’ll be inundated with that information, but for the average fan, it’s making it hard for you. Subscribing to all streaming media is expensive. Clearly, this is MLB’s pure money grab, and honestly calling it the opposite of the bullshit we hear about developing the game. I think such a fragmented national inventory will ultimately hurt national interest in the world series. What do you think?

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Shea Butter: You’re right – the current broadcast and streaming environment is not good for fans. I don’t think it’s sustainable in the long term, but it’s a frustrating reality right now. I’m in the business but still need to see where games are being played or streamed. In the short term, cash is king. But what are the long-term costs? Casual fans are also important, especially if you want to turn young fans into big-spending diehards. If finding a placement for the game as these fans grow up is an ongoing battle, it’s hard to see that evolution happening at scale.

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On the positive side (pun intended), younger fans are tech-savvy, and the streaming wars have also affected the non-sports content they like, so they’re used to browsing around for what they want to watch. Industry-wide, the sooner consolidation and stream bundling happens, the better it will be for viewers and their bank accounts in the long run. This also helps with baseball and all other sports.

Dickie: This World Series talent end has an important story. This will be the first time since 2000 that Joe Buck has not invited Fox to the World Series. Joe Davis will make his debut as the anchor of the World Series on TV. This means a lot to viewers because since 1990, the World Series has only had five game-by-game voices (Jack Barker, Sean McDonough, Bob Costas, Al Michaels, and Joe Barker). Some casual sports fans watch the only baseball game each year is the World Series, and many don’t realize until they turn on the screen that Joe Buck is no longer the face of the World Series. It would be interesting to see the reaction, even the rumors. I think Davis is a quality broadcaster and will be well-received.

Shea Butter: agree. Media nerds — like you, I’m sure that stupid spearhead — will scrutinize Davis’ performance and compare it to the greats before him, fair or not. Fox clearly believed in him, and he earned that trust. Having said that, it’s unclear to me what casual fans think of the announcer outside of gaffes or memorable calls. Shouldn’t be much. But it’s certainly an opportunity for Davis to get himself into some rare broadcaster air (pun intended only in part).

(Photo by Bryce Harper: Rob Tringali/MLB Photo via Getty Images)



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