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MLB Playoff Ratings Darken World Series Outlook

Weak deliveries, small markets threaten Fox’s Fall Classic

Outfielder Jon Jay of the St. Louis Cardinals during Game 1 of the NLCS. | Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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If the MLB playoff ratings are anything to go by, Fox may be in for yet another rough World Series outing.

According to Nielsen live-plus-same-day data, Fox’s coverage of the American League Championship Series averaged 7.1 million viewers and a 2.7 rating among men 18-49. In the demo, Fox dropped 25 percent versus 2010 when it covered the National League Championship Series.

The ALCS battle between the nation’s seventh largest DMA (the Texas Rangers represent the Dallas market) and No. 10 Detroit went six games and was plagued by rain delays throughout. Game 1 was interrupted twice by the rain, and Game 2 was postponed from Sunday, Oct. 9, to the following night.

The median age of Fox’s six broadcasts was 53 years, up a tick from 52 in 2010.

Cable net TBS also had a rough go of it, averaging 4.62 million viewers with its coverage of the NLCS. The Turner net averaged a 2.1 rating among men 18-49, down 44 percent from a year ago.

The Cardinals beat the Brewers in six games, drawing 5.94 million viewers in Sunday’s deciding frame. But even that cumulative leap—the series opened Sunday, Oct. 9, to just 3.36 million viewers—was limited by some strong competition on the night of Oct. 16.

Not only did the final game of the Cards-Brewers tilt compete with NBC’s Sunday Night Football—the Bears-Vikings blowout still managed to scare up 16.6 million viewers—but baseball also had to deal with a zombie pandemic. AMC’s The Walking Dead on Sunday returned to a staggering 7.26 million total viewers, of which a record 4.81 million were members of the 18-49 demo.

Clearly not helping matters for TBS was the relatively tiny markets represented by the two NLCS combatants. St. Louis is the nation’s No. 21 DMA, while Milwaukee is 32nd on the list.

Much as baseball purists fetishize the teachings of Moneyball, the ratings tend to take a beating whenever major markets aren’t represented in the postseason. With New York, Philadelphia, and Boston out of the running, Fox faces yet another chilly October.

Last year’s World Series averaged just 14.2 million viewers over five games. So poorly did San Francisco and Texas deliver for Fox, Game 4 was actually outranked by NBC’s Steelers-Saints battle that same night.

Despite featuring the No. 5 and 8 DMAs, the 2010 World Series was one of the least watched in TV history, topping only Fox’s 2008 broadcasts (Rays-Phillies, 13.6 million). By comparison, the Yankees-Phillies series in 2009 averaged 19.4 million viewers.

In the 14 years Fox has televised the World Series—before seizing the reins in 2000, Fox shared hosting duties with NBC for four seasons (1996-99)—its most-watched Fall Classic was the 2004 Red Sox-Cardinals series. An average crowd of 25.5 million fans watched Boston put an end to 86 seasons of futility, as the Sox dispatched the Cards in four games.  

The most-watched World Series in history was the 1978 battle between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. Reggie Jackson and the Bronx Bombers beat the Dodgers in six, serving up an average draw of 44.3 million viewers. NBC’s coverage of the ’78 World Series notched a 32.8 rating/56 share. In other words, more than half the country’s television sets were tuned in to the Yanks-Dodgers shootout.

For all that, Fox may find a glimmer of hope in this year’s lineup. St. Louis in 2011 was the second most-popular MLB franchise on the dial, averaging a 9 rating on Fox Sports Midwest. (Philadelphia edged the Red Birds with a 9.12 rating.) And Cards diehards are likely to be joined by baseball generalists eager to watch what may be Albert Pujols’ final games in a St. Louis uniform.

The 2011 World Series begins Wednesday night at 8:05 p.m. on Fox. The Rangers’ ace, C.J. Wilson, takes the mound in Busch Stadium against St. Louis fireballer Chris Carpenter.

A 30-second spot in Fox’s World Series broadcasts costs a cool $500,000 a pop. The usual suspects will be well represented, including official MLB sponsors Anheuser-Busch, GM, State Farm, MasterCard, and Taco Bell. Look for a major promo push for the Fox series The X Factor, Terra Nova, and House.

Note to Fox entertainment president Kevin Reilly: You could do worse than have New Girl star Zooey Deschanel sing the national anthem. Or, you know, throw out the first pitch. Since fans have to wait until Nov. 1 for a new episode of the season’s best new comedy, it’s the least you could do to tide them over.