Fox is looking to bounce back from its worst Fall Classic ratings in four years
New York Yankee fans weren’t the only ones whose dreams were dashed on Saturday night when Jose Altuve smacked a two-run homerun in the bottom of the 9th to send the Houston Astros to the World Series.
Fox Sports executives should mourn the missed opportunity of having the Yankees battle for the championship, which has historically led to huge TV audiences. Instead, the Astros will be going for their second title in three years and will do so against the Washington Nationals, who are making their first ever appearance in the Fall Classic (even dating back to their Montreal Expos days).
Outside of the Super Bowl, TV ratings in sports championships come down to two key ingredients: The size of the two teams’ home markets and the competitiveness of the series.
At least in that first measure, Fox could have worse consolation prizes. Washington, D.C. and Houston are top-10 markets, ranked 6th and 7th respectively in terms of DMA, or “Designated Market Size.” But not all big markets are created equal.
Neither of those franchises boast the same type of following as teams from New York (Yankees, Mets), Los Angeles, Chicago (Cubs) or even Philadelphia (Phillies). This is especially true for the Nationals, which have only been playing the nation’s capital since 2005, and are coming off an offseason where it lost its most popular player, Bryce Harper, to the rival Phillies.
The Nationals were squarely in the middle of the pack when it came to local TV viewership, according to data analyzed by Forbes. Despite the team’s improved record from 2018, viewership fell 10% and ranked 14th out of the 29 U.S.-based teams, putting them behind smaller DMAs like Cleveland, Minneapolis and St. Louis.
The Nationals’ 4-game sweep of the Cardinals in the National League Championship Series was the least-viewed on record with just over 4 million viewers on TBS.
The Astros, who won the World Series in 2017, have been gaining ground in Houston to contend with the NBA’s Rockets and NFL’s Texans. The Astros saw a 12% increase in viewership this year, which put them fifth.
Major League Baseball has been stuck with the narrative that it’s fading away from the public interest, and that it can’t create marketable stars that draw attention from outside their respective home market. But it’s coming off a strong year, with its MLB on Fox package jumping 8% from last year, and ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” garnering a more modest 2% increase from the 2018 season.
Fox is coming off a four-year low for last year’s World Series, despite featuring two teams that carry sizable national followings in the Dodgers and Red Sox. That series, which the Red Sox won in five games, averaged 14.1 million, the smallest showing since 2014; though that could have as much to do with the one-sided nature of the series. Fox had some of its best recent Nielsen performances with the two prior years’ World Series.
In 2016, Fox posted its best World Series viewership in 12 years (22.8 million) when the Chicago Cubs ended their 108-year title drought over the Cleveland Indians. That was lifted by a whopping 40 million that watched a Game 7 that went into extra innings, the best single-game MLB viewership since the 1990s. In 2017, the Astros captured their first championship over the Dodgers in 7 games, which followed up with a respectable 18.7 million viewers, including 28.2 million for Game 7.
Since the Yankees didn’t punch their World Series ticket, Fox executives now have to turn their hopes towards getting at least a six-game series.