I'm going to make a prediction about this year's World Series and, believe me, it's a safer bet than Mariano Rivera with two strikes. Here's what's going to happen: The ratings will decline. The drop will have nothing to do with the popularity of baseball, which had one of its best attendance years and which thrives in local TV markets. It will have nothing to do with the Yankees once again being the favorites to take it all. (Since when did a dominant team ever hurt a sport's ratings? Tell that to the Chicago Bulls of the '90s, or the Green Bay Packers of the '60s, or for that matter the Yankees of the '50s.) It won't even have anything to do with baseball.
Right now there is a minor euphoria in New York and the surrounding area concerning the Yankee's sensational comeback and unexpected trip to the World Series. Editorialists and radio show hosts are bending every which way to try to connect this joy to our recovery from the events of Sept. 11. Most of this, I'm afraid, is being wildly exaggerated. The good will the rest of the country has been directing toward New York in the past month does not extend to the Yankees' beating up on their hometown teams; I very much doubt if it even extends to Mets fans, who hate the Yankees just as much today as they did before Sept. 11, if not more so.
But that's really not what I'm talking about, either. The inevitable decline in World Series ratings isn't even a baseball question: It's a generational thing.
Simply put, ratings for all the major team sports as well as the Olympics have been declining steadily for years. Since 1996, World Series ratings have declined steadily from 17.4 ratings points (each point being worth roughly a million viewers) to 12.4. This would be alarming for Major League baseball if it were an isolated phenomenon, but it's far from it. NFL ratings for the last Super Bowl plummeted to 40.4, a sharp decline from the 46.0 when Dallas played Pittsburgh in January of '96. And average regular-season ratings dropped to 10.7, one of the lowest figures ever. Monday Night Football, the longest-running TV series ever and long the NFL's showcase, has dropped from 16.7 in '96 to 12.7 last season.
The NBA, considered the model for pro sports leagues just a few short years ago, has gone from a regular-season average rating of 4.7 in '96-'97 to 2.9 last season, and the finals, while up slightly from the previous season, have gone from 16.8 in '96-'97 to 12.1 in 2000-'01. And hockey? Well, hardly anyone watches hockey on TV, so forget we mentioned it, but ratings are down.
These sports and all the others have well-paid spin doctors aplenty, all bursting with excuses as to why these numbers don't mean what they say, insisting that TV sports ratings haven't dropped as fast as far as mainstream TV ratings, that this sport in that season featured a work stoppage or that such a network doesn't have the clout of the old one that used to broadcast this event, etc. And in many cases they're right. They are also beside the point. The main point is that the number of viewers watching the major sports leagues, all of them, is slipping. And while experts debate the cause or causes, there is one constant in all the numbers: Fewer young people are watching.
According to A.C. Nielsen Research, the ratings points for teens 12 to 17 watching the World Series are down from 4.5 in '97 to 3.1 last year; the numbers for younger viewers (up to age 12) fell from 3.1 to 1.9. The Super Bowl has seen a teen drop-off from 30.6 in '97 to 28.5 last year, and from 21.2 to 18.6 for pre-teens. And NBA basketball, the sport that markets this age group most heavily, has gone from a 10.0 teen rating in the '96-97 finals to 6.7 this past season, with pre's going from 5.4 to 3.5.
The primary suspect here is probably the devil's candy of prime-time TV money, which has taken the games away from the kids and given it to adults who can stay up past midnight. If so, the chickens will come home to roost in a few years when an adult audience that wasted its youth on skateboarding, video games and the Internet drops out of the sports market altogether with no generation behind it to take up the slack.
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Speaking of Mariano Rivera with two strikes, I can't believe that so many people in the sports media have been suckered by the first two games of the World Series. Isn't there anyone out there who remembers 1996 when the Yanks lost the first two games to the N.L.'s two best pitchers, John Smoltz (24-8) and Gregg Maddux, then went to Atlanta and won three straight in Atlanta before ending it in New York? Isn't there anyone who remembers the series with Oakland just two weeks ago?
Here's how the rest of the games will go: Roger Clemens will shut down Arizona tonight, then El Duque, Ramiro Mendoza and Mariano Rivera will even it up the next night. This leaves Thursday as the swing game and the key match in the Series, and this time, Mike Mussina, who is a better pitcher than Curt Schilling and has been for all of their careers, won't be stale from inactivity. This time, pitching at Yankee Stadium, the strain will show on Schilling, who has 34 innings of post-season work already.
That will leave Randy Johnson in Game 6. Let me tell you something: The man has dog in him, and has never been a great pressure pitcher. But even if he gets by Andy Pettitte again -- and this time, Mariano Rivera will get two innings in -- Arizona will be overmatched in Game 7 with Clemens on the mound.
Trust me, the Yanks have these guys right where they want them.