Is the World Series still relevant in an NFL world? Our viewership predictions and more

If you want a small indicator that we live on a very different planet than years past, we invite you to look at World Series television audiences in the 1980s and 1990s. (We could take you back, but let’s make this a peninsula exploration.) In 1980, a World Series featuring one of the same teams in this fall’s classic (the Phillies lost to the Royals in six games) averaged 42 3 million viewers. on NBC. Flash forward 13 years later. Toronto’s 4-2 series win over the same Phillies averaged 24.7 million viewers — a series in which the network didn’t benefit from having two domestic U.S. markets.

Since then, we’ve had a string of viewers thanks to the Red Sox (2004, average 25.4 million viewers) and Cubs (2016, 22.85 million viewers) ending long droughts. But World Series viewership has declined since 2016 as viewership options expand and the decline in households on network television and cable continues. Last year, the six Braves-Astros games averaged 12.02 million viewers on television and streaming. For the Fox telecast alone, the series averaged 11.75 million viewers. That was a 20 percent increase from the average of 9.77 million for the Los Angeles Dodgers beating the Tampa Bay Rays in six games during the pandemic-altered 2020 season. However, it fell short of the Washington Nationals’ seven-game win over the Astros in 2019, which averaged 13.91 million TV and streaming viewers.

If you want a mind-blowing number, consider this: Game 7 of the 1991 World Series drew 50.34 million viewers to CBS. That’s essentially the same audience (50.42 million) as last year’s NFC Championship game between the Rams and 49ers (which includes streaming platforms Fox, Fox Deportes, Fox Sports, NFL Digital properties and Yahoo Sports).

We sometimes get questions in this space about why sports fans should care about watching sports. This is a very fair question. But “should” is not the right word here. You care about what you care about. The more interesting question is how does watching MLB affect me as a viewer? At a basic level, you need some kind of marker to measure the popularity of a sport, and viewership has long been a decent (albeit flawed) measure of where a sport sits with the American public.

So what can we expect from this year’s Phillies-Astros game, in terms of viewership, and how does the World Series play out in the broader context of sports media properties? Let’s check.

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Deutsch: One fact to consider about World Series viewership — and it’s not an original thought: Fox desperately wants the series to go long, because length is ultimately the biggest factor in World Series viewership. You want people to invest in a series, especially those who don’t live in Philadelphia or Houston. Indoor games help. Obviously, competition will be a factor every night. I’ll silence your thoughts, Bill. How do you view this series from a sports media or business perspective?

World Series audience by game, since 2010

Game 1 Game 2 Game 3 Game 4 5* game Match 6* game 7*

13.6 M

13.19 M

12.58 M

13.52 M

15.35 M

17.78 M

28.04 M

* — 11 out of 12 series went to game 5, 8 to game 6, 5 to game 7.

Shi: I think it’s a really interesting litmus test of where baseball and the television industry is right now. As we all know, it’s a wild west out there cutting and changing consumer habits – and we have five age groups, from the Silent Generation to Gen Z, consuming media often in different ways. The leagues and their network partners are trying to appease as many as possible – no easy task. But while the numbers are interesting and can tell different stories based on how we interpret them, at the end of the day, MLB is already paid by the network. Well paid. I’m sure Fox and its advertising partners would all be pleased if the viewership increased somewhat.

Deutsch: Philadelphia is definitely a great sports city and a significant television market. It is the No. 4 Nielsen designated market area in the United States with a TV household population of 2.9 million. They were last in the World Series in 2009. They will attract locally (obviously) and I think they will have national appeal given the way they look. Bryce Harper is a famous star. The five-game Phillies-Padres NLCS series on Fox and FS1 averaged 4.66 million viewers, down from TBS’ Dodgers-Braves series (5.2 million) in 2021, a six-game series passed and was the most watched LCS since 2018.

Houston is also a top 10 DMA and they have a strong fanbase. But I feel like there’s a bit of national fatigue with the Astros coming off their third World Series in four years. (I’m not even sure they qualify as heels.) I think this race has some issues, including competition. If it’s a short series, I think we’ll see an average of about 12 million viewers. A long streak can reach 14 million. What do you think?

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Shi: On paper, a Yankees-Dodgers series is the best when it comes to collecting raw eyeballs. But it’s not like Philly and Houston are far-flung outposts. They are the main markets for rabid Astros and Phillies fans. As you mentioned, a long and competitive streak generates the best viewership and gives you key exposures. Fox, MLB and everyone else with a stake in the World Series would love to win Game 7 in the bottom of the ninth in a grand slam. It’s a four-game sweep.

Viewership totals can also be helped by MLB and the network crafting compelling stories to keep things interesting, especially among casual fans who may have trouble naming the players on either team. Do these teams have household names to attract casual fans?

Finally, Games 2 and 7 are on Saturdays, so college football is up for grabs. You also have 3-6 games on school nights, which can’t be avoided, but isn’t ideal for building rapport with the youngest potential fans – review the league with the oldest fans. There are no Sunday games, so the MLB avoids a serious confrontation with the NFL. Game 3 on Halloween will face Monday Night Football. I think a seven game series averages 13 million. A sweeper, maybe 11.5 million.

Deutsch: One of the things I always think about baseball is how the alphabet soup of national media partners during the season (Apple, Amazon, ESPN, Fox, MLB Network, NBC/Peacock, Warner Bros. Discovery) focuses on impact after the season. I consider MLB’s media rights deals to be the unfriendliest of all major sports. Yes, you will always know where your local team is playing in the playoffs because you are inundated with that information, but they make it very difficult for the casual fan. All streamers are expensive to subscribe to. This is obviously a pure money grab by MLB and what is honest is to call it that contrary to the nonsense we hear about the game growing. I think there is so much national inventory spread out that it will ultimately hurt the national interest in the World Series product. What do you think?

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Shi: You’re right — the current broadcast and streaming landscape isn’t great for fans. I don’t think this is sustainable for the long term, but it’s a depressing reality. I’m in business and have yet to see where the games are broadcast or streamed. Short term, cash is king. But at what long-term cost? Casual fans are also important, especially if you want young people to become cash-strapped die-hards. It’s hard to see that change happening at scale if it’s a constant struggle to find where games can be played as these fans grow.

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On the plus+ side (the plus is implied), younger fans are tech savvy and the streaming wars are affecting their preferred non-sports content as well, so they’re used to being around what they want to watch. In the long run and industry-wide, the sooner stream consolidation and bundling happens, the better for viewers and their bank accounts. This helps baseball and other sports as well.

Deutsch: There is an important story to tell about the end of talent for this World Series. This will be the first World Series since 2000 that Joe Buck does not call for Fox. Joe Davis will make his debut as the world televised game caller. This is important to viewers because there have only been five play-by-play votes in the World Series since 1990 (Jack Buck, Sean McDonough, Bob Costas, Al Michaels and Joe Buck). There are casual sports fans whose only baseball they watch every year is the World Series, and many won’t realize that Joe Buck is no longer the voice of the World Series until they happen to be on screen. It will be interesting to see the reaction, even the anecdotes. I think Davis is a quality broadcaster and will be well received.

Shi: agreed. Media nerds — and like you, I’m definitely a leader in that — scrutinize Davis’ performance and compare it to the greats who came before him, fair or not. Fox definitely trusts him, and he’s earned that trust. That all being said, it’s unclear to me how much the casual fan thinks about the announcers beyond a memorable gaffe or call. It may be less. But this is definitely Davies’ chance to launch himself into the broadcaster’s poor air (pun only partially intended).

(Photo by Bryce Harper: Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images)



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