Even though the business of sports has evolved well beyond the realm of network television ratings, the national sports media still seems fixated on comparing the number of eyeballs watching playoff baseball to those tuning into the NFL’s regular season.
Every October, the narrative of each story basically remains the same. A primetime NFL game winds up significantly out-rating a baseball post season matchup, leading to the conclusion that the NFL has not only surpassed baseball as the national pastime, but rendered it a second class citizen of the nation’s sports fandom. This year, the perfect fodder for the meme was the juxtaposition of the Phillies’ NLDS game three against the Reds and the Eagles week five matchup versus the 49’ers, which were broadcast on NBS and TBS, respectively.
Keeping with the script, USA Today’s headline blared that the Eagles “crushed” the Phillies as a television draw, citing NBC’s 11.7 overnight rating, which was 200% better than TBS’ 3.9 tally. Aside from ignoring the fact that NBC still reaches more households than TBS (about 10% by many estimates), the article also failed to mention that the Phillies attracted more viewers (27.7 rating) than the Eagles (24.1 rating) in the Philadelphia market, according to John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal.
Numbers aside, what constantly gets lost in these comparisons is that baseball is much more of a regional game. While baseball’s ratings are mostly driven by the local markets of teams playing in a particular series, the NFL caters to a much broader audience. Although the NFL doesn’t like to admit it, a significant amount of its appeal is as either a vehicle for gambling or background noise for social drinking. Baseball, on the other hands, seems to appeal more narrowly to those with a greater personal investment in the sport itself. Does that make football more popular as a network television property? Absolutely. It does not, however, make football the nation’s number one sport.
Over the past decade, baseball has enjoyed increasing revenue at a rate even greater than the NFL’s, thanks in large part to its wildly successful MLBAM internet arm as well as significant increases in revenue generated from local RSNs, particular those owned in part by the teams’ themselves. In other words, there are more ways to keep score than the television ratings of a single game (a criteria that necessarily favors the NFL because of its much shorter 16 game schedule), and baseball is doing very well on many of them.
Regardless of what gets reported, MLB would be wise to remember that ratings are not the end-all and be-all when it comes to measuring quality. Just ask the over five million viewers who tune in each week to watch Jersey Shore (or then again, maybe don’t).