SBJ/May 21 - 27, 2007/This Weeks News

Baseball ratings heat up quickly

Major League Baseball’s power as a national television draw, unspectacular for years and openly derided last year during TV contract negotiations, has jumped out as one of the foremost surprises of the young 2007 season.

The April 22 Yankees-Red Sox game was a
ratings hit for ESPN.

Though it’s still less than two months into the campaign and too soon to draw full-season conclusions, ESPN is reporting a 24 percent overall increase in household viewership for its entire slate of MLB coverage, hitting an average of 1.35 million homes. The network is also touting a 31 percent spike and best April ever for its signature property, “Sunday Night Baseball.”

Fox, meanwhile, is up 11 percent in average viewership for its broadcasts of Saturday afternoon baseball, averaging 3.6 million viewers, its best six-week start in five years.

These increases come against the steady spring competition of events such as the Kentucky Derby, NBA and NHL playoffs and NASCAR.

Reasons abound for the strong early numbers.

Fox began its weekly coverage earlier than ever this year, and shifted the start times of its Saturday games to a more viewer-friendly 3:55 p.m. Previously, Fox started its coverage in late May and had a 1 p.m. time slot.

ESPN has also seen increased ratings, thanks to a pared-down schedule that decreases its amount of daytime games. ESPN has had 16 telecasts through May 14 this year, compared with 25 last year. Six of last year’s 25 occurred during the afternoon, when ratings are lower.

In addition, both networks benefited considerably from an early helping of games involving the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox — and their attractive early-season story lines.

ESPN’s Sunday night April 22 game, which featured four straight home runs by the Red Sox and led them to an early-season series sweep, drew nearly 4 million homes, close to twice the network’s top April game in 2006.

Overall, ESPN and ESPN2 have had eight Yankees broadcasts and five Red Sox games. ESPN has broadcast two Red Sox-Yankees head-to-head matchups, and Fox had two going to a majority of the country as part of its regional Saturday coverage.

“We’re off to an impressive start,” said MLB President Bob DuPuy. “Casual fans are becoming avids and we’re getting more casual fans coming in. It’s a real testament to the work of our TV partners, the improved competitive balance of the sport and the magnetism of our stars.”

While baseball is often criticized for having an aging fan base, the biggest demographic jump among viewers has occurred among young males. Fox is up 14 percent among male teens and males ages 18-49, and 15 percent among men ages 18-34. ESPN ratings have increased 38 percent among the 18-34 male demo overall, and 48 percent for “Sunday Night Baseball.”

“It’s a consistent pattern across all the networks,” said Artie Bulgrin, ESPN senior vice president of research and sales development. “It’s definitely a positive story and a fast start for all the networks.”

Fox has long contemplated broadcasting a full season of Saturday afternoon baseball. But the network in the past has been hamstrung by contractual roadblocks, scheduling conflicts such as its prior coverage of the NHL and NFL Europa, and lack of affiliate support for additional baseball. But this year, the first of Fox’s new seven-year, $1.8 billion deal with MLB, the company was able to secure a new start date and later time after internal negotiations with affiliates.

“We’ve never really been in a position to take full advantage of the beginning of the season,” said Mike Mulvihill, Fox Sports research director. “I think the fan appetite has always been there. We’re just in a better position to serve that now.”

The era of good feelings for nationally televised baseball is a far cry from a year ago, when Fox, NBC and others were openly balking about MLB’s financial demands for its national broadcast TV package and the sport’s place within their overall programming schedules.

Executives for both networks and MLB shied away from making viewership projections for the rest of the season, particularly with the perennially popular Yankees continuing to struggle in the standings. But Mulvihill said, “We’ve likely found our cruising altitude.”

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