Sports aficionados wringing their hands over ratings for this year's World Series between the Texas Rangers and the St. Louis Cardinals shouldn't pin too much blame on a match-up that leaves out the East and West Coasts' major markets. The fact is that TV viewership for the World Series has been in decline for years.
Nielsen only has figures on World Series ratings since 1973, but the heyday lies at least as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s. Each Series between 1977 and 1982 reached no fewer than 37.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen. The record was set in 1978, when a battle between the New York Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers drew an average audience of 44.3 million for NBC.
More recent Series have typically attracted 15 million to 25 million viewers, reaching that upper range when the match-up includes a team from a bigger city, such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox or Atlanta Braves. (One exception: 2000's lackluster Subway Series between the Yankees and the New York Mets, which averaged 18.1 million viewers.) When both teams hail from smaller markets, smaller ratings are the inevitable result. In 2008, Series viewership hit an all-time low when a match-up between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Philadelphia Phillies snared an average audience of just 13.6 million.
This year's Series on Fox has not bucked recent trends. As of two days ago, Series viewership was running around 1% below that of last year's contest, which drew around 14.3 million viewers on average. To be sure, Fox has beaten some other networks in the coveted 18-to-49 demographic on many fronts, and the World Series has helped in that laudable effort. But it's hard to crow about being the tallest entity when the ground underneath you and your rivals continues to be soft and permeable.
TV networks would usually love to have 10 million to 15 million viewers on any given night, but when sports rights fees cost so much, and when the Series gets in the way of launching fall series that Fox hopes will last much longer than even a seven-game series, one can see how the numbers might be disappointing.
Fox may also be counting on the last few games of the Series -- which networks don't typically sell in advance because a team can wrap up the championship in as few as four games -- to help it "make good" any advertisers who didn't get the viewers they paid for elsewhere in its prime-time schedule. ("X Factor" is performing solidly, for example, but not up to the levels Fox promised its sponsors.)
The cost of a 30-second commercial in the World Series, on the other hand, continues to rise. Back in 1978, a 30-second spot reaching 44.3 million people averaged just $85,000, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus . In 2006, when the series averaged 15.8 million viewers, commercials averaged $399,025.
There are any number of reasons why World Series TV audiences are declining over the long term. Some fans may be watching in new ways, for example, that aren't yet counted in today's TV ratings . But one thing is certain: Thanks to a dizzying array of entertainment options, even the national pastime doesn't command the TV presence it did a few decades ago.