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Comment of the Day: How many people really watch MLB games?

Sep 15, 2011, 12:30 PM EDT

old TV

In an earlier post I wondered about how many people actually watch MLB games overall, not just on the national broadcasts.  Reader tjwilliams did some calculations:

Okay, so I just did some quick back-of-the-napkin math and came up with 1.65 billion viewers for NFL (live and TV) and 1.01 billion viewers for MLB (live and TV).  Here’s how I got there.

The NFL numbers were fairly simple.  An average of 17.9 million people watched each NFL game last year (not including playoffs) and there are roughly 91 games broadcast each year (18 MNF, 17 CBS, 17 Fox, 9 Doubleheader, 17 NBC, 8 NFL Network, plus a smattering of Saturday and Thanksgiving games).  That totals about 1.63 billion viewers.  Add in the roughly 17.2 million people who annually attend in person and you get a total of roughly 1.65 billion people.

MLB is a little tougher.  The regional broadcasts in 2010 varied between 210,000 average viewers (Phillies) and 14,000 average viewers (Nationals).  I estimated a mean of 100,000 viewers for each team which, when figured for 30 teams and 150 games equals 450 million viewers.  2011 attendance figures project that annual MLB attendance will be 74.2 million.  Finally, the national broadcasts seem to attract anywhere between 2 and 5 million viewers depending on day, time, and teams.  I figured an average of 3.5 million viewers per game with approximately 140 nationally televised games each year totaled 490 million.  All totaled, roughly 1.01 billion people viewed MLB games.

Obviously, the NFL gets more eyeballs.  But it’s not leaps and bounds above MLB.

Reader sportsdrenched then added the following:

That kind of jives with the estimations that the NFL had 9.2 Billion in revenue in 2010, and MLB had 7.2 Billion.  We can all agree that NFL is King in America.  But clearly MLB is holding it’s own and is no where near the death bed a lot of people think it is.

As with any back-of-the-napkin calculations, there are probably some things being left out here, but I think this is, at the very least, a good start.  Yes, the NFL is more popular and more widely-watched.  But it’s not by orders of magnitude.

  1. brucewaynewins - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:37 PM

    Another way to look at it is:

    Football Season : 16 games

    Baseball Season : 162 games.

    Thus its 10 baseball games to 1 football game. For live attendance it certainly sways things towards baseball’s favor. At least locally for me it does.

  2. hooks024 - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:38 PM

    Interesting calculations, but your nfl numbers are low, as it appears that you didn’t take in to account regionally broadcast games, which would up your total.

    • kopy - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:43 PM

      Yeah, 17 CBS and Fox imply that they each have one game a week. I’m not sure what 9 Doubleheader references, but CBS and Fox usually have more. The standard NFL week has 1 ESPN, 1 NBC, and then maybe a NFL Network on Thursday night. Subtract the bye week teams, and you have 13-14 games split among CBS and Fox. CBS gets AFC and Fox gets NFC, so the actual number depends on who isn’t in primetime, and who has rights for inter-conference games.

      • kopy - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:44 PM

        Sorry, meant 11-12.

    • tjwilliams - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:07 PM

      The 17.9 million figure is per broadcast. So if CBS had the double-header, that would be 17.9 million watching at 12:00 on CBS, 17.9 million watching at 12:00 on Fox, and 17.9 million watching at 3:00 on CBS. On average of course.

      You’re right, though. There are 18 doubleheader games (the double-header is split each week), so NFL gets 99 broadcasts each year, not 91. That would add 161.1 million viewers to the total.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:13 PM

        tj, can you explain how total viewership means anything compared to average viewership when trying to prove that NFL is not leaps and bounds above MLB in popularity.

      • tjwilliams - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:01 PM

        Because there are different definitions of “popular”. The NFL claimed it had 202 million “unique viewers” last season. Based on my (admittedly estimated) calculations, that means each unique viewer watches roughly 8-9 games each year.

        I have no idea how many unique viewers MLB has, but for the purposes of these calculations, let’s say it’s 25 million (1/8th of NFL’s total). Based on these numbers, those 25 million people are watching roughly 40 games each year.

        So which is more popular. 8 times as many people watch the NFL (in this hypothetical), but the people who do watch MLB spend 5 times as much time doing so.

        I would argue they are both popular, in different ways. The NFL draws in far more casual fans have little investment in the outcome of the games, while MLB draws far more fanatics, who are willing to invest more of their time into the sport and their teams.

      • detiger69 - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:17 PM

        It is not just viewership that you need to consider, but television coverage as well. How much of the coverage do sports programs devote to Baseball verses Football? Keep in mind that it isn’t just the games themselves but the “hype” and out of season discussions that go on. So in June and July when Football and Basketball were out of season and on strike, they still managed to account for a sizeable portion of the sports radio talk and television coverage. Baseball was the only game being played and it still struggled to dominate the sports fans attention.
        The more troubling aspect of this situation is highlighted by David Hill of Fox: “And if you look at the truly national teams, you quickly start to run out after the Phillies, the Red Sox, the Yankees and, to a certain extent, the Rangers, and you pray the Cubs will show some life.” Where are teams like the Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Angels, and White Sox? These teams have been perennial playoff contenders with some of the greatest players in the game and yet they are not seen as National teams but Regional teams.
        Baseball needs to do a lot to improve its marketing of the game and hence improve its revenue. It starts with picking up the pace of the game, better use of instant replay, more accountability for the umpiring crews, and making it easier for children (particularly in the inner cities) to play and attend the game.

  3. Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:42 PM

    Sure, the NFL has 1.65 Billion total viewers and MLB has around 1 Billion total viewers. But what is the average viewership of a baseball game as opposed to a football game? If you look at it that way, then the NFL dwarves MLB.

    It is leaps and bounds. What am I missing?

    • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:45 PM

      OK, I just did some back of the napkin calculations myself…

      there are around 2500 MLB games a year. If they have 1 billion viewers, that’s around 400,000 viewers a game.

      there are around 267 NFL games a year. if they have 1.6 billion viewers, that’s over 6 MILLION viewers a game.

      NFL has 15 times the viewership per game that MLB does. To me, that’s leaps and bounds.

      • Steve A - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:02 PM

        I’m sure more people would watch a single baseball game if each team played one game a week like the NFL. The whole point of the exercise was to estimate TOTAL viewership.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:11 PM

        The point of the exercise was to show that the NFL is not leaps and bounds above MLB. And it fails because the premise that total viewership means anything at all is flat wrong.

      • tjwilliams - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:12 PM

        There’s also a supply and demand issue. If I want to watch an NFL game, there are only 5 or 6 each week that I can watch, and I’ll usually end up watching even if it’s not my favorite team which, given that I root for the Bengals and live in Kansas means it’s not very often my team. That’s a total of 100 games I can watch all year.

        Most baseball fans can watch 250+ games every year, so there’s not as much urgency to watch any one particular game, because I can just watch tomorrow night’s.

      • Craig Calcaterra - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:15 PM

        Chris: Total viewership matters because these games are paid for with advertising dollars. Advertisers are adamant about repetition of their ads. If a Bud Lite commercial plays to 16 million people one time verses 1.6 million people ten times, it’s the same thing.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:17 PM

        OK, so MLB gets a break because there is more of it? Rather than just saying that football is a far superior product with far more action and far less boring, you choose to say that there are more games, so eh, there’s no need to watch every single game like there is with football?

        How about this…if there were 162 football games, I still contend that the NFL would have 10 times the viewership as baseball per game…and that in turn would equate to 10 times the total viewership. You can’t refute that anymore than I can say that baseball is watched by less people per game because there are more games.

        No, I think the MLB backers are making too big an assumption when trying to make total viewership mean anything…it doesn’t. And we haven’t even discussed the popularity of college football…

        Face it MLB fans…football is a more exciting sport than baseball. Thus the higher ratings. And it is leaps and bounds. And I LOVE baseball…but there’s no denying the facts.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:19 PM

        Craig, I agree with you 100% on the sponsorships and advertising dollars. But that is a separate argument than which sport is far and away more popular.

        I propose that Football is leaps and bounds more popular than baseball because, even with 10 times less games, then have 60% more viewership than baseball. Am I wrong?

      • Craig Calcaterra - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:21 PM

        But I don’t think anyone is arguing that football isn’t more popular. Of course it is. I think the argument is that the national TV ratings distort the magnitude of that popularity and that the national baseball numbers miss a huge swath of people who watch baseball games.

      • Chris Fiorentino - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:26 PM

        I think if anything, the #’s that tj posted just go to show how dominant the NFL is over MLB. Like I said…I agree that sponsorship is one thing. Popularity is another.

        111 million people watched the Super Bowl last year…while an average of around 15 million people watched the World Series games. If you took the TOTAL viewers of the World Series, it would be 75 million(5 x 15)…and if you tried to compare the total viewership of the World Series to the viewership of the Super Bowl and said “MLB isn’t all that far off” it would be ludicrous…wouldn’t it?

      • tjwilliams - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:54 PM

        Chris, that’s the point we’re trying to make. In about six weeks, somebody like you is going to come on this blog and make some stupid comment about how the regular season Sunday Night Football game beat the Sunday night World Series games in the ratings.

        The point I’m trying to make is not that MLB is MORE popular or even AS popular. The NFL is obviously more popular but there is a certain apple-and-oranges aspect to the debate. The NFL is a national league, where the people care about the product. People will watch NFL games regardless of which team is playing. The reason they do this is because the number of games they can watch is limited, so they’ll watch whatever’s available.

        MLB, on the other hand, is a regional sport, in which fans follow their team day-by-day for six months. This is going to have an effect on the number of people watching the playoffs and throughout the season. Research has shown that NFL attendance is largely unconnected to team success. That’s not true in baseball. 7 of the top 10 teams in MLB attendance are in the top 2 of their division, while 7 of the bottom 10 teams are in the bottom 2.

      • The Dangerous Mabry - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:02 PM

        The claim of “far more action” has been studied and refuted repeatedly.

        11 minutes of action in an NFL game


        14 minutes of action in an MLB game

        You can nit pick the methodologies used, but it’s awfully hard to argue that there’s “far more” action in a football game.

      • cur68 - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:24 PM

        Ironic; you lot were having a WAR type argument. Scarcity of commodity driving up value vs plethora driving down value. The two gams cannot be judged on straight across merits. One is scarce and the other ubiquitous. Your basic elite SS vs Elite 1st baseman WAR argument. Don’t mind me. Carry on.

      • nategearhart - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:40 PM

        Chris, you can’t just assume that with 162 games, individual football games would be watched by just as many people. Also, I don’t find football more exciting than baseball at all. You are basing too much of your stance on assumptions and opinion.

      • bigleagues - Sep 15, 2011 at 4:37 PM

        Not buying that model.

        NFL teams play 1 Game per week on SUNDAY afternoons in the Fall and Winter no less. Yeah, real tough to get people to stay in on a cold Sunday afternoon and watch your 1 game that week.

        MLB teams play 6-7 Games per week, on work nights, during the late Spring, throughout the summer and into mid-Fall, and on 3 major holiday weekends, up against the NBA and NHL play-offs on one end of the season and the start of the NFL and NHL on the other end of the season.

        So, no, I do not buy the hype that the NFL is the more popular sport. And I’m not even factoring the millions of people who attend Minor League Baseball games every summer. Ever been to a minor league football game? I didn’t think so.

        And we also, correct me if you know otherwise, have no idea how many people are watching games on (although I just realized I may have a way of finding out) – or internationally, for that matter. Sorry – I don’t need to see the numbers – far more people are watching MLB internationally, than are watching weekly NFL games internationally.

        If I’m an advertiser I love the ability to target regions on a nightly basis for 6-7 months out of the year and across the demographic spectrum, though admittedly still skewed toward males. No other sport offers that opportunity.

    • dailyrev - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:14 PM

      To Craig: I’ve worked with marketers (building their websites) for a decade and I can tell you that volume alone means little to them. One VP of marketing I’ve worked with has this mantra (which I’ve heard ad nauseum in meetings): “get the right message to the right people at the right time.”

      So for professional marketers, mere repetition alone is worse than useless if it’s to the wrong audience or if it’s mistimed (you don’t market dish soap during an NFL game, though for those of us old enough to remember, the stockings-in-an-egg ad featuring Joe Namath caught fire because of the timing, demography, and circumstances). So you can’t support a statistical analysis via a gross simplification or distortion of marketing principles.

      To Chris: OK, you’ve made your case, but are your conclusions clear and complete? (viz., football is more exciting than baseball). What you’ve demonstrated is that football is probably more popular than baseball — the reach to “more exciting” is a subjective projection onto the data. It’s a very common error that happens in medical and sociological research as well (I wrote a master’s thesis on this very point), but if we are to use statistics and probability theory with any utility, we must expose such false reasoning wherever we find it.

      A professional and competent reading of these data, as in a peer-reviewed journal, would be as follows: “data indicate that football is roughly 10-12X more popular in American culture than baseball. More research is required to understand the motivational dynamics of this statistical trend. In addition, chronological meta-analysis of similar studies from the past and repeat measurements of these data in future would help to identify temporal shifts in this array, preferably with sub-scores by region, state, city, choice of medium, etc.”

  4. Panda Claus - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    I only watch Oriole games. Would those numbers count if we’re talking strictly about major league games? Yes, I want to know if my “vote” counts.

    • atworkident - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:11 PM

      Are the Orioles still considered a major league team?

      • nolanwiffle - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:40 PM

        That is somewhat debatable….not as debatable as, say, Vin Scully invoking the name of God while quoting President Reagan….but debatable, nonetheless.

  5. Mark Armour - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:46 PM

    I wonder how many people (starting with here) sit down and watch a nine-inning major league game without switching channels. There is nothing I like better than sitting at a major league game on a nice evening. But generally when I visit other people who are watching baseball they are incapable of actually watching the game, and only the game.

  6. heyblueyoustink - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    Baseball is fine, if the average American prefers to watch a bunch of fat dudes in tights rolling around on the ground and slapping eachother in the arse after they manage to lug themselves up, they can have it all they want.

    Baseball isn’t going anywhere, folks.

  7. dillpickle64 - Sep 15, 2011 at 12:55 PM

    Admitting that this is always going to be something of an apples to oranges comparison, I don’t think the calculation laid out is really answering the question posed.

    The calculation is certainly coming up with a number of “game views”, but it isn’t getting at “how many people watch baseball”. There might be roughly 1 billion baseball “views” per season, but many, many of those “views” are going to be performed by the same people. As primarily a baseball fan, I probably watch 90 – 100 Twins games over the course of the baseball season. So while I represent 100 “views”, I only actually represent one discrete baseball fan or “person”. There definitely has to be some adjustment for the sheer disparity in number of games.

    I’m not going to attempt to quantify that, but I think anyone who is being honest about it can look at the numbers in the article and acknowledge that football is WAY more popular based on the unique number of people that must be watching the games to result in the viewership stated. If an advertiser wants their ads to be seen by the “most” or broadest number of Americans, football is the clear answer. If an advertiser is more interested in having their ads viewed as many times as possible by a niche market, then baseball.

    • Steve A - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:16 PM

      However, I’m guessing you primarily watch Twins games, though. Just like I watch Tigers games primarily. Thus, you may be one of a few thousand watching 5-6 Twins games a week and I’m one of a few thousand watching 5-6 Tigers games a week. Put those two audiences together, and that’s two times a few thousand watching 5-6 games a week. That’s just for two teams. Over all 30 teams, that adds up.

      With the NFL, there are always 4 time slots with games and sometimes 5 (Thursday night). Also, those games are in convenient time slots to watch (Sunday afternoon and Sunday and Monday primetime). Thus, a typical NFL fan can watch all 4 to 5 games a week easily. And since that fan’s team only plays one of those 4-5 games, he/she can watch other teams’ games. Thus, all NFL fans are grouped together in the viewership numbers.

      That was also a quick and dirty calculation. I do agree with the advertising angle, though. However, I still don’t agree with the “NFL is way more popular than MLB” theme.

      • dillpickle64 - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:11 PM

        It was probably exaggeration on my part to say football is “way more popular” than baseball, because popularity is not a very tangible or measurable thing (at least it can be measured in lots of different ways). I veered away from the initial question just as the original article did.

        I should have said, it seems clear that WAY more people watch football. And you’re right that football tends to be shown at convenient times on convenient days, but that only supports the idea that football would be watched by a far greater number of people….in lots of ways it’s simply easier to watch football than it is to watch baseball.

        Who knows, baseball may have a greater number of overall “hardcore” fans than football and could thus be said to be more popular…but it just seems totally obvious based on the numbers and real-life observations that “more people” watch football.

        I’m hard-pressed to find many people in my company or social circles with whom I can have an in-depth baseball conversation with; at the same time, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t want to talk my ear off about football.

  8. bloodysock - Sep 15, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    How many people also subscribe to MLB.TV or NFL Sunday Ticket to view games?

  9. b7p19 - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:05 PM

    This is getting out of hand with details. Craig is right when he said Football is more popular, but Baseball is just fine in it’s own right.

    That said, wouldn’t you also have to take into account the amount of football parties that go on compared to baseball parties? There are a lot more 12 person Sunday football get togethers than there are Wednesday Padres parties to watch the game. Wouldn’t that effect the calculation of viewers reached? I don’t know how the ratings are figured, so maybe thats already taken into account.

    Also, how come nobody comes to my Padres parties?

    • tjwilliams - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:13 PM

      Nielsen numbers take into account how many people are watching a particular broadcast. Seven people watching in one location is exactly same as one person watching in each of seven locations.

      • b7p19 - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:18 PM

        OK, but that still doesn’t explain why nobody comes to my Padres parties.

  10. amhendrick - Sep 15, 2011 at 2:28 PM

    The Nationals average only 14,000 viewers? So with an average attendance of 22,500 (2010), even if everyone watching on TV turned it off and actually went to the game, they still wouldn’t sell out.

  11. sonofsamiam - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    18 Monday Night Football games huh? I’d get yourself a calculator my friend

    • b7p19 - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:15 PM

      17 weeks plus a doubleheader in week one right? 17 + 1 = 18 (trust me i’m an accountant).

      • thomas2727 - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:53 PM

        Please provide evidence of 18 Monday night games.

        Your an Account pretend this is an audit.

      • b7p19 - Sep 15, 2011 at 4:01 PM

        Audits scare me. I don’t know, lets count one of the preseason MNF games maybe? Will that fly? I forgot there wasn’t a MNF game on the last week. I hastily responed to “sonofsamiam” because he was trying to make someone look stupid and I was wrong.

        Please accept my apology. Oh and 1) I’m an Accountant, not an Account 2) it would be “you’re” not “your”. Looks like you aren’t perfect either.

    • tjwilliams - Sep 15, 2011 at 3:16 PM

      ESPN gets an opening weekend double-header. But now that you say that I remember that there is no Monday night game in Week 17, so it is only 17 MNF games. Like I said, this is back of the napkin stuff to show a comparison between MLB and NFL. And when we’re talking about 1-2 billion, 20 million here or there isn’t a big deal.

      • thomas2727 - Sep 15, 2011 at 9:59 PM

        If I remember correctly your not supposed to use either in a sentence without or? Yes I said your.

  12. - Sep 15, 2011 at 4:07 PM

    We can throw these numbers around all we want. It is apples and oranges. Baseball and football are consumed differently. NFL is a TV sport. TV provides the majority of it’s funding and the league is built to prosper on that.

    A lot of my family would never watch baseball on TV. However, They’re they first to jump at attending a game. Then you have nutcase fans like me watch on TV as much as possible, go to games when they can, AND might subscribe to MLB Game-Day-Audio, or download MLB-At-bat11 on their phone.

    The point is, the answer to the snide question: “People still watch baseball?” is Abso-freakin-lutly.

  13. antlerclaws - Sep 15, 2011 at 5:11 PM

    This is the 3rd article today I’ve read where the term “back of the napkin math” was used.

  14. kn38zpf - Oct 27, 2011 at 3:39 PM

    NFL is more popular on a “per game” basis. If they played 162 game like MLB, no doubt the per game viewership will go down dramatically. But the overall “popularity” contest should be judged based on the overall product, i.e. the whole season: how many people you reach for how long on a “per year” basis.

    A good way to judge this would be total annual revenue for NFL and MLB. How much money are they raking in (or are people willing to spend on their product) from gates, TV deals, advertising, merchandise? I’m guessing it’s pretty close.

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