As I write this I’m watching the St. Louis Cardinals battle the Texas Rangers in Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. The Rangers are leading this game and the series 3-2 and Texas catcher Mike Napoli is hurt, rolling around second base. A friend of mine pointed out that the World Series is struggling again this year in the TV ratings, comparing it to the 1985 Series featuring the Cardinals and Royals. His source was an article by Atlanta Journal-Constitution sports columnist Mark Bradley who poignantly asked if any Braves fans were watching the Series this year. This Braves fan certainly is watching. Americans might not be watching the World Series like they used to, but a lot of that is because of choice.
In 1985, the Series cited by my friend and Bradley, far fewer people had cable television, and it certainly didn’t have hundreds of the programming options to choose from that we do now. Video games weren’t completely consuming the lives of men who would otherwise be watching sports and on-demand sounded more like an option for an escort service than for entertainment. What’s changed are the options. No longer are we bound as a society to simply watch the must-see program of the evening. Late Octobers were dominated by the World Series for years because frankly, there wasn’t much else on television. Someone that’s only a casual baseball fan might watch the World Series in 1985, because it might be better than watching a repeat of Cheers. Today, if you’re only a casual baseball fan, who would only watch if your favorite team is playing, you could just as easily watch the full slate of programming your cable or satellite company is offering on that particular evening. Perhaps, like me, you’re a Braves fan and rather than watching the 2011 World Series, you DVR’d Game 6 of the 1995 World Series when the Braves won it all. Let’s not forget the Internet, with Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and all of the many streaming options we have. The World Series isn’t the only game in town and it’s a disservice to baseball to claim that people don’t care anymore.
Mark Bradley uses antiquated statistics to drum up support for his argument that baseball has become a “regional sport”. Yes, football reigns supreme, but what else is on television on Saturdays and Sundays? Sure, on Sunday night there is some counter programming to NBC’s Sunday Night Football, but during the day? I’m not going to watch a Rambo marathon on Spike over sports and on Saturday I’m not eager to watch the Harry Potter marathon on ABC Family over college football. Football succeeds because it’s far more limited that baseball (not on every night and only a one-tenth of the games played in baseball) and it’s conveniently on when nothing else entertaining is on broadcast TV. Sure, I could watch a DVD or on-demand something, but the draw of a game that is only played once a year is tough to beat. That’s why football wins. Another fact to consider is DVR. Surely it will not make up for the massive difference in ratings between the 1985 (24.9 million viewers) versus 2011 (8.8 million viewers), but people will DVR games if they miss them. There used to be a time where people had tiny little TVs in their offices, with rabbit ears fully erect desperately searching for a clear signal to watch the game. Now we have ESPN’s Gamecast, MLB.tv, a host of sports related smart phone apps and other technologies that make “watching” a game a new experience, not counted in Neilsen ratings. Point is, technology has changed and sports fans, sports writers and others need to recognize that and its effect on how we enjoy baseball.
Those trying to destroy America’s pastime are the same writers that rarely make correct predictions, have lost significant readership to blogs, and tend to say something asinine to drum up hits (see the AJC’s Mark Bradley or a recent article by ESPN.com senior writer Gene Wojciechowski). My hope is that baseball fans recognize this and point to stats showing that baseball attendance is strong, even with a lengthy 81 home games per season. Let’s also remember that compared to all the other major professional sports, baseball remains the most accessible to fans. Don’t let pessimistic fans and writers or those ready to send baseball off to its grave bring you down. The game is strong, it’s beautiful and it’s America’s game.
Since I started writing this, the Cardinals have tied up the game 3-3. If they win, we’re headed to our first 7-game season since 2002. Sure, that may seem exhausting, but for a real baseball fan, it’s all we could ask for.
Until next time.