To read or listen to some, Major League Baseball might have a ratings problem this season.
It’s akin to Chicken Little screaming that the sky is falling.
The truth is that the story of MLB’s ratings goes beyond the national games that many derive their analysis. There are two pictures to view.
One is nationally, and the other deals with regional sports networks.
The truth is that ratings have been down or flat with baseball’s national partners — Fox, ESPN and Turner.
Fox, which owns the rights to the World Series, is arguably the league’s most prominent partner, and 2013 has offered a rocky road thus far.
“It is [too early to worry about ratings], I believe, I wish the story was a little better than it is, but it’s not unexpected for us to be down a little bit at this point of the year. I think we knew going into the season that we had backloaded our schedule,” said Mike Mulvihill, senior vice president of programming and research for Fox Sports Media Group.
Fox geared its broadcast schedule toward significant matchups in interleague play and league rivalries. For instance, there are five games scheduled featuring the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees this season, only one of which has aired.
“Given that, it’s not surprising that we’re down a little bit. The better news is yet to come for us,” Mulvihill said.
Still there are certain realities. An NHL playoff game airing on NBC beat Fox’s first week of prime-time baseball.
“We certainly take note of it. Again, we set a prime-time schedule. We know what the likely competition is going to be. There is no surprise there really. The NHL is having a pretty successful postseason and so is the NBA,” Mulvihill said.
Prime-time games are a way to add some hype to Saturday broadcasts. A Fox executive said recently that they’re looking to turn Saturday into Baseball Night in America, a la the NHL in Canada and NBC’s Football Night in America.
Ultimately, however, even with the ratings declines, it might not matter much.
Mulvihill said that the national coverage is important, but that a real barometer of what is happening with baseball comes from the regional sports networks Fox owns, including SportsTime Ohio, which Fox purchased at the end of 2012.
Of its 16 regional stations, he said there are more networks with improved MLB ratings than declines, and several are essentially flat. He said STO’s broadcasts of Indians games are up 6 percent over last season.
“When that trend is flat, it says to me there’s not a problem with the game itself. It’s not a problem with other mediums taking eyeballs away,” he said.
“It says something about our schedule that hasn’t kicked in yet. I do believe the fact that we’re doing as well as we are on the regional side — which is enormous business for us — sometimes gets overlooked because people tend to focus on the national side.”
Mulvihill said he’s relieved by that fact, and the reality is that he has good reason to be.
Despite complaints about baseball’s pacing and its consistent ranking behind pro football in popularity, these games still deliver something that advertisers covet — eyeballs for real-time TV.
That’s significant given the fact the past couple of years, real-time viewing of television programs has declined courtesy of the DVR and online streaming, according to the Nielsen company.
“Sports is the healthiest part of TV programming,” Mulvihill argues.
As long as that trend continues, leagues and conferences will remain attractive to broadcasters.
George M. Thomas can be reached at email@example.com. Read the On Sports Media blog at http://www.ohio.com/blogs/sports-media. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/GeorgeThomasABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.