NEW YORK (AP) — From April to September, from Boston to Seattle, people sat down night after night after night to watch their hometown baseball team more than everything else on television.
In 11 metropolitan areas, local ballclubs made for the most popular window of prime-time TV over the course of the regular season: The average rating for games on their regional sports network outpaced the offerings of any other channel in the market from 7-11 p.m.
Now the playoffs are underway, the broadcasts are all national. With no Yankees, no Red Sox, no Cubs — big-city franchises that lure in casual fans — the stark figures of viewership numbers will likely seem puny compared to past years, when far fewer entertainment options competed with playoff baseball.
Yet in the face of record-low World Series ratings and the increasing average age of viewers, baseball officials are giddy about their business, and that’s because of the value of those local summer audiences.
Regional sports networks are an increasingly lucrative source of revenue for clubs. And they’re doing just fine with their baseball telecasts.
“To have something trending up on standard pay television is remarkable,” said Tim Brosnan, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of business.
Local baseball ratings have held steady over the last five years as Netflix, DVRs, the ever-expanding channel universe and other innovations shrink the viewership of other prime-time fare. According to Nielsen, regional baseball broadcasts topped the rankings in Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Kansas City, Cleveland, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and Phoenix.
“The engagement and passion the fans have for their local team is clearly unmatched in their markets,” said Fox Sports President Eric Shanks, whose company owns the regional networks in six of those cities.
Fox also televises baseball nationally, culminating with playoff games and the World Series. The NL Division Series and five of the seven NLCS matchups are on upstart cable channel Fox Sports 1 for the first time this fall, meaning they’re available in fewer homes. Ratings for this season’s playoffs are off to a solid start, boosted by all the extra-inning games.
But that momentum will be tested by the ALCS matchup between small-market Kansas City and Baltimore.
When it comes to parsing the national ratings, a lot depends on what you compare them against. The average for last year’s World Series between the Red Sox and Cardinals was down 16 percent from the previous time Boston made it six years earlier — and the 2007 World Series against the Colorado Rockies was a sweep, while in 2013 it went six games.
One of the key measures for any network, though, is whether a sport is drawing more viewers than other programming would. Those six games were Fox’s six highest-rated prime-time telecasts to that point of the fall season.
And viewers don’t record live sporting events on their DVRs and fast-forward through the commercials as they do with sitcoms and reality shows. That fact alone keeps advertisers lining up to pay for spots.
Baseball ratings look paltry against pro football, whose viewership numbers seem immune to the trends bombarding the rest of the entertainment world. With such a small supply of NFL games (16 per team), the demand is immense for each one.
MLB clubs play 162 games. That packed schedule is a disadvantage when it comes to contrasting the average viewership for baseball games to those for football. But it is also an advantage that explains why the sport’s leaders are cheerful about the state of the game. Start adding up the viewership numbers for game after game after game, and the interest compounds.
“Our investment in baseball is a portfolio,” Shanks said.
Fox Sports ratings guru Mike Mulvihill has researched the regional sports network ratings for 25 teams over the last decade. He found that the cumulative viewership is up 24 percent in that span. One reason for the increase: Those stations are now airing many more games.
All of those numbers have made the regional networks more valuable to cable and satellite providers. And because each network makes much of its revenue from fees those providers pay to carry it, the audience demographics don’t affect profits in the way they do for the traditional broadcast networks, who rely more on advertisers who want to reach younger viewers. In other words, baseball’s older viewership is less of a problem for regional networks.
Some of those local broadcasts used to feel small-time compared with the national coverage. But technological innovations have trickled down over the past decade, Brosnan said. Now they’ve got a similar sound and look.
“Viewers have enormous options,” Brosnan said. “If you want viewer eyeballs, you have to give them the best product that they’re used to.”
For the home team, those eyeballs are often watching.