Why nobody watched the World Series

Blame it on late games and regionalism -- not the great baseball. And has anybody checked the NBA ratings lately?

By Allen Barra
Published November 1, 2002 11:49PM (UTC)
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I've read all the postmortems on why the World Series ratings were so comparatively low, and none of them wash. "Theme-less"? How silly. Why is it that the Eastern Seaboard media only perceives "themes" in pennant races or World Series involving the Yankees, Red Sox or Mets? You have a team from America's most sophisticated city and another team from a city -- well, not even a city, really, more like a high-rent trailer park built next to a giant shopping center and inhabited by the descendants of Tom Joad -- and this somehow is less of a "theme" than the Yankees vs. the Braves?

"Bad baseball"? By what standards? The teams were balanced enough to go seven games, with a tying run aboard in the ninth inning of the final game. Four games were decided by one run.


"Bad pitching"? Why not "good hitting"? What's more exciting than big comebacks? And did I miss something, but wasn't one of the post-season stories the improbable success of three rookie pitchers -- Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly and John Lackey?

"Bad managerial decisions"? You mean like Casey Stengel not pitching Whitey Ford at Forbes Field in 1960, a move that blew up in the Yankees' face, or Connie Mack starting a washed-up Howard Ehmke over baseball's greatest pitcher, Lefty Grove, in 1929, a decision that proved to be one of the most fortuitous in baseball history? What World Series doesn't revolve around daring decisions that backfire on a manager?

"Bad (or at least not the best) teams in the Series"? Uh-uh. I don't buy it. You can tell me that the Braves should have been in there instead of the Giants -- although you might want to note that by every measure, the Braves were a weaker offensive team, scoring 75 fewer runs, hitting for lower average and with less power -- but what year shouldn't the Braves have been in there instead of the team who was in there? Tell it to the Braves. You can blame Arizona's failure on their overreliance on their two great starting pitchers, Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling, but then you would have to call their success last year a fluke for overreliance on the same two.


"The Angels weren't as good as the Yankees"? Well, maybe not, if you equate the last month of the Yankees' season, which consisted of victories over glorified minor league franchises like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Detroit Tigers, with the Angels' victories over the Oakland A's and Seattle Mariners. (I suspect that if they had been in the same division the Angels would have beaten the Yankees by at least five games.)

"No superstars?" Isn't the greatest hitter in baseball history good enough for you? How about Troy Glaus, the 26-year-old hitter of 148 home runs in the last four seasons and potential candidate for greatest third baseman in league history? Have not Troy Percival and Robb Nen been among the league's top three closers in the last several years? And do my eyes deceive or did Jeff Kent just finish posting his sixth 100-plus RBI season in just 12 years -- one more than the legendary Rogers Hornsby had in 22 seasons? (And is Kent just 126 RBIs behind Hall of Famer Joe Morgan for his career?)

No, none of this adds up to low ratings. There are several things that do, some obvious and some not so obvious.


Among the former are the lateness of the games. In Richard Sandomir's excellent column in the New York Times, Wednesday, Oct. 30, he had several wonderful suggestions concerning this problem, including the complete elimination of the pregame shows, which would save everyone at least an extra half-hour. (Sandomir also made the perfectly sensible observation that Saturday is the least TV-viewed night of the week and thus a dumb day to start the Series.) Why not start on a Tuesday night? (Sandomir also made a suggestion that deserves a bottle of champagne if implemented: A "courtesy replay" of the game the following day on one of ESPN's outlets for those who had to go to bed early the night before. They replay every damned regular season baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer game -- not to mention boxing matches -- in the world except the World Series.

But we all know that will only have minimal effect on the ratings. The real answer to restoring World Series primacy would be to play a couple of games in the afternoons where people could watch it on small TVs at the office, listen to it as they drive around in cars -- no small thing, this, in Southern California -- and a few kids might even switch on in the afternoon when tiring of the Cartoon Network. But this, of course, wouldn't bring in prime-time advertising dollars.


The early vs. late telecast debate, of course, has been going on for years, and it obscures a larger problem for the World Series. Decades ago, when Major League Baseball consisted of half as many teams, virtually all of them in the Northeastern area of the country, the World Series was simply played between the teams in each league with the best record, was broadcast during the day, and was considered a national event. As the years went by and more teams were added, baseball found itself in the same situation as pro basketball and hockey: the only practical way to choose a champion was through a series of playoffs, and as more teams and more divisions were added, there were more playoffs.

Paradoxically, as Major League Baseball expanded before a more national audience, the post-season games, through which the bulk of the national advertising revenues were made, began to be of increasingly regional interest. Whereas fans in Florida or Texas or the Rocky Mountain region once tuned in to see the World Series no matter who was playing, they now began to lose interest and tune out as the teams in their regions were eliminated. The same thing has happened in the NBA, a fact obscured by the apocalyptic fluke of Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Over the past five seasons, NBA regular season national ratings have dipped an astonishing 40 percent, and, for the most part, the NBA finals have continually lost viewers from the Jordan years -- with no national hero or team to root for, fans increasingly tune out when their team isn't playing. Pro football has seen the opposite effect; more and more, fans have lost regional identification with teams that they only know through television in the first place. And if you're watching a game on TV, what difference does it make whether it's being broadcast from New York, Dallas or Oakland, Calif.? (When the New York Giants were in the Super Bowl two years ago, New York area TV ratings were exactly the same as those in seasons when the Giants weren't in the Super Bowl.)

That's why the World Series has lost viewers and will probably continue to lose viewers until it inevitably winds up, like the NBA post-season, being broadcast to hardcore fans on an ESPN channel.


(A Point After)

If Major League Baseball had set out to prove how many idiots it reaches with its promotions, it couldn't have done a better job than with its Ten Greatest Moments. Cal Ripken's streak? What exactly was the "moment" there? The moment Cal drove up to the ballpark? The moment he put his jock strap on? The moment the game passed the fourth inning, thus making his appearance official?

Couldn't somebody with access to a dictionary define "moment"? For all the so-called fans out there without one, let me tell them what a moment is: A moment is, well, a moment -- something that happens and passes very quickly. And the greatest moment in baseball history without a debut is Hank Aaron's 715th home run, a moment that represented a courageous triumph over enormous odds. A moment is supposed to be something that gives you goose bumps. Did Nolan Ryan's seventh no-hitter give you a goose bump? Geez.


Note: I promise I'm going to try to do better on reading and responding to e-mails. This means I have to start from scratch. From now on, you can reach me at commentsforbarra@aol.com.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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