Keeping Score

World Series: Low Ratings, Little Buzz. Three Ways to Fix Baseball’s Fall Classic

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Baseball’s got a nasty World Series problem.

Despite the inclusion of the San Francisco Giants and Texas Rangers, two teams with compelling players (like postseason pitching studs Tim Lincecum and Cliff Lee) from significant markets –  the Dallas metroplex (the 4th largest market in the country) and Bay Area (13th) – the 2010 Fall Classic averaged just 14.3 million viewers, marking the second-lowest ratings in World Series history. And the worst-rated Series unfolded just two years ago, when rain delays, and preoccupation with the presidential election, kept viewers away from the 2008 series between the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays.

So two out of the last three Fall Classics were the least-watched in baseball history. Not good. A few years ago, baseball could have cried that increased channel selection and audience fragmentation was responsible for the ratings woes of all sports. But not anymore. Viewership for sports like pro basketball and hockey have been improving, and the NFL is on a roll.

(Check out the 10 most memorable World Series moments)

So perhaps it’s time for baseball to rethink the World Series. Here are three possible fixes:

1. Steer Clear of Football. On Halloween night, an NFL regular season game – between the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers – outrated the World Series for the first time. And the series clincher squared off against Monday Night Football. This scheduling clearly cost baseball a chunk of viewers. Face it: these days, people are more worried about how Peyton Manning’s performance impacts their fantasy teams than they are about two star pitchers dueling in the World Series. The reason is simple: fantasy football is gambling, and in these economic times, fans have a vested interest in watching an event that may earn, or cost, them some money.

This fix is easy: on Sunday and Monday nights, just keep the World Series off TV. Cede the screen to the NFL. How about starting the Series on a Tuesday, playing Game 2 on Wednesday, making Thursday a travel day, and playing Games 3 and 4 on Friday and Saturday? Then, take that two-day break, resume with Game 5 on Tuesday, travel day Wednesday, and wrap it up with Games 6 and 7 on Thursday and Friday. Will the two-day break give teams with better pitching an advantage because they can rest their starters? Sure. But we like seeing the good pitchers, you know, pitch. And it’s fair to assume that the teams which make it to the World Series will both have strong pitching; any advantages from the break should be negligible.

2. Embrace Twitter. Of the three major sports leagues, baseball has the most tepid, least interesting presence on Twitter, by far. We kept hearing how those San Francisco Giants had a bunch of loose, bearded, eccentrics that the average fan could relate to. But according to the website tweeting-athletes.com, only one Giants player had an account: Jeremy Affeldt, who pitched 1 and 1/3 innings in the World Series. Texas also had just one player tweeting, pitcher C.J. Wilson.

By contrast, the New Orleans Saints alone, one of the teams that played in the regular season NFL game that embarrassed the World Series in the ratings, has 27 players with Twitter accounts. Is it is coincidence that ratings for the NBA and NFL, whose players are all over Twitter, are on the upswing, while baseball’s have trended downward? Probably not. Whether you like Twitter or think it’s inane, the app is free promotion for sports. And the World Series could use those 140-character plugs.

3. Ditch the Rest of the Playoffs. Baseball will never implement this radical idea, but at this point, it’s at least worth discussing. Since baseball trudges through a 162-game regular season, in which six different divisional races, broken down along regional lines, create the playoff positions, very few games create true national interest. The San Francisco Giants are a nice team, but they snuck up on everyone by winning the mediocre National League West on the last day of the season. Their underdog story is attractive, but few fans around the country really got to connect with the team; once they reached the World Series, it was too late.

What if we go back to the pre-1969 setup, when the teams with the best records in the American and National Leagues went straight to the World Series? This arrangement would create intense national interest in the regular season. Fans on one coast would truly have to follow teams on the other coast, and all the ones in the middle. Fans would build familiarity with the best teams, and that regular season ratings momentum would carry into the World Series. And since those World Series games would be the only ones of the post-season, a bunch of other playoff games – the Division Series, the League Championship Series – would not longer dilute their impact.

Crazy? Maybe, particularly given the fact that Bud Selig is talking about expanding the playoffs. But at this point, baseball needs to put everything on the table.

(A Life in Photos: George Steinbrenner, 1930-2010)

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