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For the one thousandth time: NFL and MLB TV ratings are apples and oranges

Feb 8, 2011, 12:04 PM EDT

old TV

Dejan Kovacevic writes this morning:

One argument often heard in Major League Baseball circles is that the best way to get great TV ratings for the World Series is to have two very large markets in the equation.

Oh, really?

The Steelers-Packers Super Bowl, comprised of two markets that are among the smallest in professional sports, drew the largest TV audience for any program in the history of our society, Fox announced yesterday.

He goes on to attribute this television popularity to the fact that the NFL is “fair” and Major League Baseball is not due to its financial structure. He says that unlike in baseball, market size — and Pittsburgh and Green Bay are tiny markets — don’t enter into it at all.

Without even passing on the fairness of baseball’s financial system — I realize it’s flawed; that’s another discussion — why do we continue to see NFL ratings and Major League Baseball ratings compared like this?  Yes, the NFL is more popular, full stop. I don’t dispute that. But the degree of its greater popularity should not be inferred from its television ratings.

The vast, vast majority of baseball games are consumed on a local level. Fans watch their own teams’ games and rarely watch others. Why? Because their team is on TV every day. The couple of national broadcasts a week aren’t at all significant in comparison.

Football, in contrast, is a nationally-televised sport. As in, every NFL football game is carried by a national broadcaster. Yes, there is “regional coverage,” but without looking I bet you that the majority of the nation had access to either a Packers or a Steelers game every week this past season.  Cowboys and Patriots too. The marquee teams are defacto national teams with national fan bases in the habit of watching them on national broadcasts.

That is what leads to gigantic national television ratings for football games. That and a host of other factors such as scarcity of actual games, weather and attractiveness of the sport on a flat screen that naturally makes football a better TV sport than baseball is.  I seriously doubt that the underlying economics of the game enter into your average fan’s decision to tune in the Super Bowl vs., say, the World Series.

  1. okobojicat - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:13 PM

    There’s a simple reseponse. What’s the total attendance for MLB vs. total attendance for NFL.

    If you look at it that way, NFL is getting their butts kicked. They should probably just fold shop. Oh wait, they are.

    • Utley's Hair - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:28 PM

      In a more or less misguided attempt to keep the argument a wee bit fair, it would have to be average attendance, since baseball has 10x as many games as football. Also as a percentage of venue size, since football stadia are generally larger.

  2. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    Hey, at least you get to use that TV pic again.

  3. xmatt0926x - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:24 PM

    I have no idea what the mindset of the average baseball fan in small markets is. I agree with all of Craigs points about what makes football a better tv sport, especially the scarcity of games. Having 1 game for your team per week makes football a much more need to see event and a party atmosphere as well. I do think the financial structure of the 2 sports does come into play to an extent, but it’s just a guess on my part since I dont live in one of the small market areas. I have to think though that many people who would be your average baseball fans in the smaller markets might become jaded and eventually turn away from the game when it’s not likely your team will get to the playoffs very often. Yes, teams like the the Tampa Rays show that a small market team with good scouting can have a few good years by drafting well but lets face it, in the long run it’s very tough for teams like them to compete with the big-money/big salary teams on a yearly basis. How many average fans have been lost in places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City because their fans just have no hope. Kansas seems to be on the rise with the prospects they now have but it’s been around 20 years since they’ve had any success. How many adult fans in these places went away and therefore never taught their kids to love the game either? Its probably a small reason at most for the ratings difference but I think it’s at least a reasonable point,but I’ve been wrong before.

  4. yankeesfanlen - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:28 PM

    Have we ever advanced the argument that baseball is played during better weather when people are cooped up in the house? In July, there are plenty of diversions-picnics, vacations, longer days to occupy. What to do in December (TV audiences are down during the summer, up during the fall-winter area).
    And, many of us are trained that a baseball game on radio as backround can be a wonderful way to spend a sultry evening sipping our favorite beverages.
    Total eyes (and ears, and fannies in the seats) would make baseball the champ.

    BTW, I bought a new car the night of the last episode of M*A*S*H, so that did not impress me either.

    • Utley's Hair - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:35 PM

      I think you meant “…when people AREN’T cooped up…” but your point is valid. Though, around here, the radio/online stream is better than the TV crew anyway.

  5. trevorb06 - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    You know, over the course of the year I bet in the USA more baseball games are watched than football games. Obviously this is because there are more games being played. This is like comparing eating Chinese food to eating Southern Louisiana cajun. Yeah, its still eating (its still sports) but its not even in the same ballpark.

    This year I was able to watch every Vikings game on NBC, CBS, FOX, ABC or ESPN (although I only watched about 70% of the games, but I COULD have watched them all if I wanted on those stations). I can’t remember the last time I watched the Twin’s on any of those stations yet I still watched 70% of the Twin’s games this year on Fox Sports North-Minnesota.

    Some people are so ignorant for a story that they’ll just go writing the same garbage over and over even though they get the same retort that televised baseball and football are two different concepts.

  6. Jonny 5 - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    Just because football is more popular doesn’t mean anything is wrong with baseball. It makes me sick, this argument. Why do people feel the need to stack up ratings and measure them, then conclude baseball needs to be fixed? Who gives a sh!t about ratings besides networks!!!??? And “F” them anyway!!!

    The point of quantity is a very valid one. As is network coverage.

  7. BC - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:47 PM

    1. Basically a once-a-week buildup
    2. Playoffs are 1 game, winner take all
    3. National (network) TV coverage
    4. 50 bajillion people gamble on it
    1. A game basically every day for 6 months
    2. The best players (the pitchers anyway) don’t play in every game’
    3. The playoffs are wicked drawn out
    4. Mostly regional TV coverage until the playoffs
    5. Basically no one not named Pete Rose bets on it
    Thus endth the lesson.

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:58 PM

      Playoffs are 1 game, winner take all

      Going along with Craig’s apples and oranges, this needs to be repeated more often. There is no tomorrow for the SB participants. It’s one and done. Also, there’s nothing else on the day of the SB.

      Also, the comment about Pittsburgh and Green Bay being small markets is a bit misleading. Are they small markets, yes, but they are also two of the most storied franchises in football. The Rooney’s have owned the team for decades, and Green Bay has the Vince Lombardi history [go fordham!].

  8. Mr. Jason "El Bravo" Heyward - Feb 8, 2011 at 12:49 PM

    Why aren’t we comparing baseball to the NBA and NHL? Aren’t their schedules and playoff structure more appropriate for comparison? Where does baseball compare with these leagues?

    • BC - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:05 PM

      Basketball would be a great comparison. I don’t think anyone south and west of St. Louis cares about hockey.

      • Utley's Hair - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:24 PM

        But basketball sucks.

  9. megary - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    As was hinted at above…

    If the World Series was one must-win game, held 2 weeks after the last league championship playoff game, with a guarantee of seeing the best pitcher from both teams, with a media day, picture day, autograph day, family day, and with the Rolling Stones playing a pseudo concert during the 7th Inning Stretch, then yes, the World Series would have ratings comparable to the super bowl.

    But thank God baseball doesn’t denigrate itself to that end.

    • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 10:04 PM

      dude its called, making money. and the reason why baseball is an after thought compared to football. or why it cost simon cowell over 5 mil to have a 30 second commercial during the superbowl. etc. etc. etc.

  10. lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    i dont know if theres a poll to prove this theory but….. i would put money on it and say an avg baseball/ football fan would be more incline to watch a different team outside of there region play football before the would watch baseball. theres violence in football unlike baseball. no matter how u want to look at it, psychologically, violence will always attracts peoples eyes. just like sex. and not for nothing, football has that too over baseball. cheerleaders. the only thing i can honestly say that baseball has over football is, that its more enjoyable to listen on the radio a baseball game then it is football. and thats due to its slow pace of the game. so just give it up die hard baseball fans. theres reason why baseball is in 2nd place. its not worth the argument. baseball will lose all the time. just deal with it. plus i dont even want to get into the fact of name another sport that has seperate set of rules for each league. or the fact that each field has different dimensions. im just saying…. but thats an argument for another day.

  11. lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 1:26 PM

    i dont know if theres a poll to prove this theory but….. i would put money on it and say an avg baseball/ football fan would be more incline to watch a different team outside of there region play football before the would watch baseball. theres violence in football unlike baseball. no matter how u want to look at it, psychologically, violence will always attracts peoples eyes. just like sex. and not for nothing, football has that too over baseball. cheerleaders. the only thing i can honestly say that baseball has over football is, that its more enjoyable to listen on the radio a baseball game then it is football. and thats due to its slow pace of the game. so just give it up die hard baseball fans. theres reason why baseball is in 2nd place. its not worth the argument. baseball will lose all the time. just deal with it. plus i dont even want to get into the fact of name another sport that has seperate set of rules for each league. or the fact that each field has different dimensions. im just saying…. but thats an argument for another day.

  12. lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 2:09 PM

    another thing baseball should mention that it has over football. there stats. baseball stats can actually give u great prespective of a player unlike football. due to the fact that baseball is more of an individual sport compared to football. football without a doubt is a team sport. looking at a football players stats is useless when determining a players value. for me, fantasy football is the only thing that really benefits from football stats. example: larry fitzgerald. by far top 5 wr. yet look at his stats. this year his stats will tell u he had a horrible year. but, what it doesnt tell u is he had a horrible qb throwing to him. so how is that his fault. its not that he sucked this year. u want a second example? revis. no one really knows how great he really is if u look at his stats. looking at his stats, it would appear that he doesnt even play in a game due to the fact that none throws his way. so at the end, in football, u literally need to watch a game to figure a players value where in baseball stats really does give u a great overall view of a player.

    • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 2:10 PM

      no one* ( should have proff read, lol)

  13. zidanevalor - Feb 8, 2011 at 2:37 PM

    I love the “NFL is more fair” argument. Because it’s not like 22 different teams have been in the MLB playoffs the last 5 years, or 9 different teams have won the World Series in the last 10.

    There is just as much parity in MLB as there is the NFL. It’s NBA that there is almost no parity despite there being a salary cap.

    • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 7:42 PM

      nonsense. in your argument u forgot to mention how yankees, angels, and redsoxs, are usually the one that fills those 8 spots. and excluding the angels, in some senarios, the reason yanks and red soxs are able to make it there all the time, is not because they waste the most, its because they can financially take a hit when they make a mistake unlike majority of the rest of the league. hence why not having a salary cap is a huge advantage to big market teams.

  14. florida76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 2:38 PM

    Actually, comparing TV ratings for the Super Bowl and the World Series is a very accurate gauge in comparing the popularity of both sports. Last time I checked, the MLB playoffs and World Series are carried nationally, so the local TV point has no legs. The NFL playoffs also destroy the MLB playoffs. Also, the notion that the Super Bowl has some kind of advantage because it’s a single game is nonsense as well. Check the ratings for game sevens and the result is still the same-football destroys baseball. This most definitely isn’t one of those oranges versus apples arguments.

    The massive erosion in postseason ratings over the last 20+ years simply can’t be explained away, and it’s not a coincidence the gap in spending has increased during this time.

    And yes, Green Bay and Pittsburgh are still smaller markets, just as Indianapolis and New Orleans were a year ago. And yet the Colts/Saints had great ratings as well, and those teams don’t have success the Packers and Steelers have enjoyed. Remember, the Colts have been in Indianapolis since 1984.

    The difference? Both the Packers and Steelers have hall of fame caliber players, but the system provides the opportunity to retain most of those players. That contributes greatly to the success of these franchises, who have been serious title contenders for many years. Cinderella teams in the NFL, like the Arizona Cardinals stumble under bad decisions, the system isn’t a contributing factor. When teams like the Lions struggle, it’s due to poor management, the system isn’t a contributing factor.

    • Craig Calcaterra - Feb 8, 2011 at 2:42 PM

      There are over 2000 regular season baseball games. Fewer than 100 are nationally televised during the regular season.

      If the NFL had 5% of its games on national television, I can assure you that it would not get the postseason ratings it currently receives.

      • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 7:50 PM

        last time i checked espn carries baseball every sunday night. and on saturdays fox 2 sets of games played nationally between 3, if im not mistaken, until 7-8. and by the agreement of the contract no other games can be played between those hours. football only has two days also, and every once in awhile thursday. so why u crying that baseball doesnt get televised enough? bad argument. and to top it off, theres more weeks in baseball then football.

    • hgulkkcaj - Feb 8, 2011 at 4:11 PM

      We have to remember, too, that any old bum can watch the NFL and get into guys trying to beat the tar out of each other. It takes some knowledge and understanding to be able to enjoy 162 baseball games every summer. If you don’t know the history or grow up with baseball and understand the small details of the game, I would imagine that it would be very tough to sit down and watch baseball for 3 hours every day. Football on the other hand only happens once a week and takes little dedication to your team or the sport.

      • Utley's Hair - Feb 8, 2011 at 4:34 PM

        The football popularity/lowest common denominator argument?

    • Reflex - Feb 8, 2011 at 5:39 PM

      Simply asserting this argument over and over does not make it more true, florida. I refuted this in the previous thread and you have yet to counter what I said. Baseball sends more teams to the playoffs. It has had a slightly higher percentage of world series winners than the NFL since 1992. If a larger variety of teams make the playoffs, and the same or more teams win the world series, then where the heck is the parity problem, at least comparatively?

      And how can you assert that the Lions are simply a victim of bad management, but the Pirates are somehow disadvantaged? Why is one a victim of ‘the system’ and the other not?

      • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 8:05 PM

        simple, theres no salary bottom in baseball, so pirates never put the money they get in luxury taxes into the system, where for the lions, everyone plays in the same financial system. so if u make a mistake, like for example jamarcus russell for x amount of dollars and yrs thats just plane old bad management. theres a reason why ne, pitt, philly, indy, tenn and maybe even sd makes the playoffs all the time. they dont need to sign all of their stars, because they know that all they need draft selection. its a revolving door in football. and they do their research. wasting money on a star in free agency in football doesnt gaurantee anything. unless u have all the other pieces already in place. like for example ariz and sf. all they really need is a qb next yr and they will be top contenders.

      • Reflex - Feb 8, 2011 at 9:25 PM

        I am not certain how your statement refutes my argument. Not putting enough into salary would indeed be a symptom of bad management, especially given that revenue sharing in baseball is far above the level that some teams put into payroll, removing any and all excuses. Just this past year it came out that the Marlins were recieving something like $70 million in revenue sharing, yet were spending less than $30 million on payroll. How is that a small market vs. big market issue? Thats just profit taking by the owners at the expense of the richer owners.

        At the end of the day though, the real measure of parity is how many different teams have a legitimate shot at the playoffs and the championships in a given sport. In baseball, more teams go to the playoffs, and a slightly higher percentage of the league has won the world series over the past 19 years than the NFL has produced. Parity, at least as compared to the NFL, has been achieved more effectively in baseball than in football, regardless of your personal opinions about the financial structure.

      • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 9:48 PM

        first: since when does baseball seen more people to the playoffs? theres a total of 8 teams that make the playoffs per yr in baseball, verses 12 per year in football.
        second: the pirates situation isnt bad management, it was called greedy management. they kept the money. basically the same thing that happen this past decade with the housing market, wall street, banks, etc… yet with the lions there is a salary bottom. which forces people to waste more money. hence the nfl has the better system. it forces u to put into system yet gives u a limit. and it gives the oppurtunity for smaller teams to be competetive.
        enough said……

      • Reflex - Feb 9, 2011 at 9:41 AM

        Not that you are willing to let facts sway your opinion, but I’ll at least explain my point:

        You are correct, baseball puts only 8 teams into the playoffs while the NFL puts 50% more teams into the playoffs. However my point was that despite a smaller annual pool of playoff teams, and despite having only 30 teams overall vs the NFL’s 32, in baseball a higher number of teams in the league have managed to make those playoffs in the past 19 years than in football. In other words, there has been more hope for the average baseball fan, whether they are in a large or small market, than there has been for the average football fan.

        That is real, practical results. You can theorize all you want about parity issues, economic issues, etc. But when the rubber hits the road, for nearly two decades baseball has demonstrated actual competitive parity to a greater degree than football. That does not mean that baseball is perfect or has a perfect economic model, or that parity could not be improved. It only means that the results on the field have been more effective than the sport to which is it often compared.

        It also means the “NFL is more successful because of parity” argument is false. The NFL has demonstrated less parity than MLB, yet it has been more successful by some metrics(not all). Parity would clearly not be a cause of this, given the facts stated above.

        As for your other statement, if a team can compete well with less money, why should they be forced to ‘waste’ money? If the Lions, with their salary floor, are still never competitive, what is the point of a minimum salary? If the goal of such salaries is parity and competitive teams, yet we can see that that is not happening, why do you uphold this as a great example? Do you honestly think the Pirates would have been a playoff contender wtih a salary minimum? If so, why would you believe that given the reality of the Lions? If not, then what goal are you attempting to reach?

      • lja76 - Feb 9, 2011 at 11:56 AM

        1st when it comes to lions, they had millen as gm who just ruin them to shreds. hence bad management. after the change, which was two yrs ago, u have seen signs of hope. and if u recall this year in the nfl, the lions and cleve was the actually the most feared teams to play near the end of the season. and that info was coming analyst during that time frame. when it really comes down to it, nfl has it structured where u can be the worst team one yr and be a top contender the following yr. u cant say that in baseball. look at tb rays, they literally can only be a contender for two yrs or so, then trade away all their major pieces or let them hit free agency to get draft picks, only to rebuild for 4 to 5 seasons before they have any hope of being a contender. and stop using pirates as an example. they were just greedy. they wanted to pocket the money instead of using it on the team. which is the reason there is a need for a salary bottom just as much as they need a cap.
        now i need to ask u this question? why are u only going back 19 years? why not 20? or even the past 10 yrs? 19 is just an odd # to use for your argument. unless…… your point gets nulled by using a 20 yr span. im not sure if this point is factual or not. but by my assumption, when i see an odd # like 19 and not a typical # like multiples of 5’s and 10’s, i start questioning. are u just using 19 because that yr it will prove your point? yet 18 or 20 doesnt? all thats doing is using math just to prove your yet doesnt prove anything at the end. its basically manipulating the #s.

      • florida76 - Feb 9, 2011 at 1:39 PM

        Uh yes, my argument has statistical background from studying this issue extensively. 20 years ago, I correctly predicted baseball would be falling behind the NFL in popularity in part due to the competitive balance problem.

        Parity has never been about the one shot wonders making the playoffs, rather, those same smaller market teams being serious contenders for a long period of time.

        Smaller market teams in MLB have been dismantling for nearly 20 years largely because of the system which allows a huge gap in revenue. This is common knowledge, and unique to MLB. Yes, there are poorly managed MLB teams, but they also face the hurdle NFL teams don’t deal with. Check what Yankees fan Bob Costas has said about this subject, he’s one of the few media people who understands this issue.

        In MLB, smartly managed teams like the Twins and A’s before them can win for a period of time, but are crushed in the playoffs, failing to be a serious contender. In the NFL, teams like the Steelers can be a serious contender for decades, and that’s the difference.

      • Reflex - Feb 9, 2011 at 8:18 PM

        lja76 – I was using 19 years because the start of divisional play which significantly expanded the number of teams in baseball that make the playoffs(doubled them, in fact). However I was off by two years, divisional play started in 1994, not 1992, and that season was aborted as well, so the real metric should start in 1995.

        I ran all the numbers on this, btw. When run since 1995 Football has had *slightly* better parity if you are measuring it by teams making the playoffs. However if you went back 20 years as you say, baseball has had more parity as *every single team* has at some point been in a playoff position when a season ended(in 1994 Montreal/Washington finished the aborted season in playoff position). Conversely, only 31 of 32 NFL teams have been in the playoffs in that time frame.

        But the differences overall are miniscule. Both have sent the overwhelming majority of their teams to the playoffs in the past 15 years(26 of 30 for MLB since 95, 31 of 32 for the NFL in that time). In the past 20 years, MLB has sent 30 of 30 teams to the playoffs, the NFL has sent 31 of 32(I may be overstating this as I do not know what NFL teams have relocated so its possible I am double counting someone). The NFL has produced one additional Superbowl winner in the past 15 years(11 winners) vs baseball producing 10 different World Series winners. At those ratios, factoring in the fact that the NFL has 2 more teams than baseball(and more than that for part of the metric given baseball expanded twice in the 90’s vs only one expansion I know of for the NFL), they are functionally identical in the parity argument.

        At the end of the day, it does not appear that parity has much to do with player salary structure. Both leagues have effectively achieved parity. Arguably baseball has done it even better than football given that they achieve it with *50% fewer* playoff spots per season.

        Next time this topic comes up I’ll dump up the actual numbers for everything since I took the time to gather them already.

  15. belichickrulz - Feb 8, 2011 at 3:40 PM

    Something else to remember is that the Super Bowl starts at 6pm ET and is over by around 10pm ET. Most World Series games don’t start until almost 9pm ET and may not end until 1am ET. That is a HUGE disadvantage for MLB in terms of ratings, and has contributed to the degradation of the audience over the last 20 or so years because young people just can’t watch the games.

    I’m not arguing for day games (that ship has sailed), but couldn’t they at least start at 8pm ET during the week and 7pm ET on Saturday/Sunday?

  16. macjacmccoy - Feb 8, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    I think the only thing that matters is the combined World Series ratings compared to the Super bowl. Im a bigger football fan then baseball but I still love baseball. There is know doubt that Football is a more popular sport in a America but I get so made when people (Im talking to you Florio) argue that Football is the new American past time. Calling something Americas past time means its what Americans do the most to past time. There are 512 football games in a season compared to 4860 baseball games. Anyone who argues that Americans watch more hours of Football in a year then Baseball is compeletly out of touch with reality. Baseball is an always will be Americas past time.

    • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 8:37 PM

      dude, im sorry if it comes out rude what im about to say. are u crazy????? u never finish your calculation. yes for a compiled # in the hours. of course baseball wins, but that doesnt prove a god damn thing. with that theory, hockey is more of a past time sport than football is. lmao!!!!
      plus, 512 games?????? there isnt 32 games on a day in nfl. theres 16 games. so thats 16 x 16 weeks per team. remember bye weeks. thats 256 games. in those 256 games, u need to calculate the amount of tvs actually tuning into the game. and so on and so on which will give u the tv ratings. now heres the kicker where it actually hurts football ratings, there are more people watching 1 tv when football is on compared to when baseball is on. dont believe me. check a bar on any given sunday. u would think the world series is on yet its only week 3 in the nfl. thats what makes it more embarrassing for baseball that a world series game cant even beat out a good matchup in football any given week. lol. dont quote me on that, i dont know if thats factual but to be honest, i seriously wouldnt be surprise if it was true.

      • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 9:08 PM

        wow………. i just did some research. the highest televise regular season game in the nfl was actually this year. minnesota vs the no saints with 27.7 mil viewers. u have to go back until 2002 game 7 of the angels vs the giants world series game to beat that with 30.8 mil viewers. wowowowowowowwwww embarrassing.

      • lja76 - Feb 8, 2011 at 9:18 PM

        oops i lied, 2004 game 4 red soxs vs the cardinals with 28.8 million viewers

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