Dispelling Myths: Late World Series Starts, TV Viewership, And MLB Is ‘Dying’

When it comes to TV viewership, the World Series remains a major point of interest. Are declines causing the game to... [+] die? Is it the late start times that are to blame? All of these myths are untrue. (Photo by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images. MLB Photos via Getty Images
Major League Baseball would be dead if you take a look at social media and sports talk radio. Every year, there are endless conversations about TV viewership numbers and late start time. There is a lot of people claiming that the game has become too old. It is not reaching young children. There are still a few nails to go in the coffin. These are myths in almost every case. Baseball isn't dying.

Data can be complicated and it is difficult to compare across eras because of this. Nielsen Media began tracking viewership for World Series games in 1968. Between 1968 and the 1980s, most households only had three channels on their over-the-air TV. It is not surprising that current viewership has surpassed the limit of available channels. This is not just for baseball. You'll find the same if you look at The Tonight Show's viewership.

Let's now dispel some myths using this backdrop.

Myth #1: Kids don't engage in the game because they have late starts

Each year, there is a new story about how games used to end at midnight back in my time. This is why I am a baseball fan. Kids don't like baseball because they need to get to bed earlier.

This is a story that was created by Eastern Time zone people. Over the years, network executives have repeatedly stated that television windows were designed to reach maximum audiences. Sometimes, the start times are set to avoid conflict with other sports programming. For example, not playing against college football on Saturday. For weekdays, the most reachable start time across Canada and the U.S. is 9 p.m. ET.

This conversation is tied into the narrative that kids cannot watch the games to completion because they are too busy with school, so MLB is missing the opportunity to grow the game with them.

Although it may seem like this could be true, the exact opposite has been proven. John Ourand, a journalist for the Sports Business Journal, wrote that in 2007 when he was investigating late start times, he found that audiences were larger across all age groups, with the exception of those 55 years and older. It was shocking at the time to see that viewers aged 6-17 were watching the same amount at 8 p.m., as at midnight. They don't. It seems that younger people are now watching more games than ever before.

It is a myth that children who start late in life are disengaged from Major League Baseball.

Myth #2: The Eastern Time Zone's Late Start Times Are A New Phenomenon

All those old baseball fans who regret the slow start on the East Coast and long for the days when games were played in the 80s and 1990s, it's a myth.

Major League Baseball began to air games at 8:30 PM ET, beginning with the introduction of night games on broadcast television. This included the World Series. Kirk Gibson's incredible home run against Dennis Eckersley in bottom of 9th during 1988 World Series? The game began at 8:30 PM ET. Every game in the Fall Classic between the Dodgers & As began at 8:30 ET. Now, fast forward to 2021, and the start time for all games has been moved up to 9 p.m. ET. The East Coast's late start is not a new phenomenon. Stop perpetuating the myth that this new phenomenon is possible.

Myth #3: Baseball is dying because of lower viewership numbers

It seems that every year, pundits who don't keep up with the complexity of TV viewership over the years dive into the World Series viewership numbers and declare that the declining numbers are a sign that MLB may be dying.

This myth is one of the most difficult to cover. It could take several articles to do so. But here's the bottom line:

These comparisons often look at viewership numbers in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, seven of the 1975 World Series games between the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox saw an average audience of almost 36 million viewers. The average viewership for Game 7 was a staggering 51.56 millions. The 2021 World Series could draw close to 11.2 millions viewers. Game 5 is the most watched game, with a 13.993 million average audience. Baseball is dying.

Let's take a look back at 1975. NBC aired the World Series. NBC was also one of three channels America had available over the air. There wasn't cable. There was no streaming. Because of the limited number of channels available, everyone had to choose from three sources for television content. Today, linear TV on satellite or cable can now see thousands of channels. There are also streaming channels and game options that were not available in the 1970s and 1980s. This is known as fragmentation in media industry and it makes it difficult for content providers not only to draw viewers in, but also to retain them.

You may be right, but what about the more recent World Series games? What about viewership? What is the reason for the decline?

Nielsen's system looks at TV households to calculate viewership numbers. These viewers are used to measure popularity. There has been a substantial drop in pay-TV subscribers. Pew Research found that 56% of Americans say they watch TV via satellite or cable. This is a drop in the percentage of Americans who said they did so in a survey of Americans. 71% say it's because they can access the content online. 69% claim that the cost of satellite and cable services is too high, and 45% don't watch television often.

In six years, over 20% of American households have stopped paying for television. This has had a profound effect on all televisions, except the NFL.

Based on the Fall Classic teams, the 2021 World Series also has a cyclical effect. The match-up between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros results in a regional event. Add to that the Astros are still feeling the fan effects of the 2017 sign-stealing scandal, while the Atlanta Braves are dealing with what many consider a racist chop and chant that have been condemned by the National Congress of American Indians. This has also played into fringe fan interest.

It's possible that 2021 could be the lowest-viewed World Series since Neilsen began tracking it in 1968. Baseball is dead, right? But not exactly. The World Series will be the most watched television content of the year, except for the NFL.

While viewership numbers are declining, it is a sign of fragmentation and falling pay-TV subscribers. It is a myth that networks are unhappy about the World Series content. FOX is actually happy with it.

Myth #4: There is no need to be concerned about longer games and a slower pace

Some myths may not be true. There are many things to be worried about.

The length of the games, and more importantly the pace at which they are played has all had a negative impact. For nine innings of play, several games took over four hours this postseason.

This is due to an increase in pitchers. It is not a major issue if you are attending a game. After purchasing your ticket, you are already invested in the game and have it locked in. It is easy to change to another channel at home, especially when there are so many viewing options. Every pitching change interrupts the flow of the game and the networks also use this time to advertise to offset the high media rights fees they pay MLB to air the games.

General managers and managers of teams are focused on winning games. To win, they will employ as many position players and pitchers as possible. It may be a bit annoying to some fans, but it will work if it wins. Fringe fans will be the ones who are left out when games become slow-moving slogs. Those viewers will likely move on to something.

Is that sufficient to say that baseball is in decline? Is it true that the World Series is no longer a major piece of broadcast content because of the speed and length of the games? It isn't.

More myth-busting is needed to dispel myths. This article will be reprinted next year, there is no doubt about that.