Networks, Beware the World Series!

As we prepare ourselves for the very real possibility of a Tampa vs. Philadelphia World Series, TV network executives are probably being told not to keep any razor blades in the house. The network dream of a Manny Ramirez-off, featuring two rich, big-market teams that both had a claim on Manny, is nearly dead. (I know Philadelphia is hardly a small-market town, but it is compared to L.A.)

Any sports playoff is a crapshoot for the networks; if they’re lucky, they get teams that are in a big TV market, and if they’re unlucky, well, they get Tampa Bay. It somehow seems like the World Series is an even bigger problem than most sporting events for the networks, because if it doesn’t involve teams that either a) can deliver huge TV audiences from their fan base or b) have some interest for people who live outside the city, the network is stuck with up to seven nights of mediocre ratings. TV networks were lucky, in the beginning, because TV got popular at a time when there was always a New York team in the post-season. As you can see from this potted history of TV baseball broadcasts up to the ’90s, the price of TV rights for the World Series shot up astronomically in 1950, the year television really took over America. And in the ’50s, the New York Yankees — right in the middle of the biggest TV market, and a team that was well-known and loved/hated all over North America — were in the World Series almost every year, usually against another New York team. The only years in the ’50s that didn’t have the Yankees in the Series were 1954 and 1959, but 1954 offered another New York team (the Giants) and 1959 gave us Los Angeles vs. Chicago. Baseball TV coverage thrived, in part, because there was a clear co-relation between the likelihood that a team would reach the World Series and the amount of media appeal it had: a team in a big media market had the money to stomp all over the teams that didn’t deliver the TV ratings.

What I’m driving at is that this isn’t really true any more. The trend that was documented in Moneyball, that the teams that spend the most money no longer automatically deliver the best results, is still holding; right now, the Rays, with the second-lowest payroll in all of baseball, are beating the Red Sox, with the fourth-highest payroll. (Actually, they already beat the Red Sox, since the Sox are only in the playoffs due to the “Wild Card” rule which I hate so very much, but that’s more appropriate for the “Balls” blog.) Combine that with the increased number of playoff rounds, which increase the likelihood that a rich team can get eliminated — whereas in the ’50s, if you finished first, you went to the World Series, no divisions, no playoffs — and it’s become hard for networks to count on the Yankees or the Red Sox being in the Series to save their hides. Fun for fans of teams that aren’t the Yankees or Red Sox; not so much fun for network executives.

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