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MLB's TV ratings are down and the NFL is more popular: So what?

By Dayn Perry | Baseball Writer

Is baseball dying? Hot Dog Guy thinks that's a ridiculous question. (USATSI)
Is baseball dying? Hot Dog Guy thinks that's a ridiculous question. (USATSI)

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There's almost no rationale too tidy for someone to pinch off a "baseball is not long for this world" lamentation/celebration. Typically, it's a fan poll or the TV ratings of one of MLB's signature events that bring about such half-cocked doomsaying.

On the first point, in a recent poll 35 percent of queried fans responded that professional football was their favorite sport. Major-league baseball finished second, albeit distantly at 14 percent. So, yes, the NFL-Industrial Complex is more popular than baseball. Just as "Titanic" is more popular than "In the Bedroom," and just as Pitbull sells more albums than Spoon. There's no accounting for tastes, you see, and mass consumption is rarely a symptom of quality. Hey, if you like halftimes and 11 minutes of action, then by all means, please do enjoy.

Inasmuch as baseball's health is concerned, finishing second in a poll of sports fans is hardly a death knell. Furthermore, let it be said that there are many football-first types who also attend and watch baseball games. When a poll such is this is trumpeted in the media, it's as though there's a tacit assumption that fans of one sport can't be fans of another. At best, this describes a decidely narrow minority of the sports-consumer population. For instance, I generally like pizza (thin crust, please) more than Thai food, but I spend money on both. So it is with sports.

The larger point is that there's a sensible and liveable middle ground between "not as widely gobbled up as the NFL" and "reduced to smoldering embers by market forces and or Roger Goodell's Fists of BusinessTM."

As for the TV ratings, context is necessary. First of all, baseball's television metrics are just fine relative to pretty much anything but the NFL. That's in part because there's this thing called the Internet that has lowered the base-line for TV ratings as we once knew them. Baseball's numbers are down steeply versus 20 years ago? Magnificent! So are those of [INSERT PROGRAMMING HERE].

Second, let's think about some structural differences that might explain part of the ratings gap. Baseball plays a 162-game regular season during warm-weather months, has games on TV every day of the season and is highly structured around local markets. The NFL, meanwhile, mostly concentrates its games on Sundays during cold-weather months (i.e., when people tend to be inside and in front of the tube) and plays roughly 10 percent of MLB's games. All those distinctions mean the NFL is more suited to "appointment television." Let's also keep in mind the many flaws in Nielsen's sytem and the fact that baseball fans consume baseball games through platforms other than a TV with a Neilsen box tethered to it.

All that said, I don't doubt that more people watch a given NFL game than a given MLB game and do so by a wide margin. Context matters, though. Without a regard for context, one could just as easily, say, drum up a smoking take on how the NFL is dying because its ticket receipts can't compare to MLB's. Context-free observation right there!

Let's also not forget that networks and especially regional carriers are paying a lot of money to broadcast these baseball games that can't compare to the NFL's toned and mighty Nielsen muscles. Those with skin in the game seem to think baseball games on television are worth quite a lot money. They're self-evidently correct.

The fundamental point is that MLB is a wildly profitable, soon-to-be-$9-billion industry. By even the most absurdly permissive definition of the term, that's not "dying." You can lodge some very valid complaints about pacing and the excessive strikeout rates in the game today, but you can't argue that it's somehow a troubled business. In fact, the guess here is that football, with its declining rates of youth participation, faces its reckoning long before baseball does.

By all means, incurious scribes, keep trotting out those "end days of baseball" stories. The good news is that you'll be able to keep writing them, again and again and again. All the while, baseball will go on being played and enjoyed and -- perish the thought -- even watched on television.

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