HOUSTON — It is a quiet and perhaps temporary surrender for Major League Baseball, a void that may go entirely unnoticed, what with America’s cultural obsession filling the void, but a notable retreat nonetheless for the game’s marquee event.
For the first time since the 1947 World Series became the first broadcast in its entirety, the Fall Classic will intentionally go dark on a Sunday, the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies traveling east after Games 1 and 2 rather than playing on a night traditionally made for television.
That prime bit of real estate is now dominated by the nation’s No. 1 television show: Sunday Night Football on NBC, a tribute both to the USA’s bottomless appetite for football and the NFL’s willingness to gorge its viewers on it.
Instead, MLB will launch its jewel event with Game 1 Friday night at Minute Maid Park, pit Game 3 against the nominally less dominant Monday Night Football on ESPN and land another travel day on Thursday, when Amazon will stream its nascent Thursday night NFL game to its more than 150 million Prime subscribers nationwide.
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Barring a rainout in Philadelphia, Game 7 would be played Saturday, Nov. 5 at Minute Maid Park, ensuring baseball’s hibernation commences before sport’s high holy NFL Sunday arrives again.
Yet with Sunday, Monday and Thursday nights blanketed by NFL, scheduling a seven-game World Series has turned into a delicate task, forcing MLB and its national carrier to tip-toe around an industry giant to amplify what was once North American sports’ premier event.
“Obviously, we didn’t want to go head to head with the NFL on multiple nights,” Bill Wanger, Fox Sports executive vice president and head of programming and scheduling, tells USA TODAY Sports. “If you said, let’s start the World Series on a Thursday, you’d potentially be going head-to-head with the NFL on four nights.
“It’s a giant jigsaw puzzle, but every event has its place, and we maneuver the various properties to maximize all of them.”
For baseball, the puzzle is shrinking, and Sunday became the odd-fitting piece, a significant departure for a sport that often placed its ultimate matchup on Sunday nights.
Eight times between 1972-2002, Game 7 of the World Series fell on Sunday, perhaps why certain memories may be so indelible. The Jack Morris-John Smoltz 10-inning duel in 1991? Craig Counsell’s walk-off 1997 single for the wild card Marlins? The end of the Yankee dynasty on Luis Gonzalez’s bloop single off Mariano Rivera in 2001? All on Sunday evening.
Yet this is a different era, where all sports and entertainment franchises must fight significant headwinds due to streaming services and a proliferation of diversions. And no entity casts a larger shadow than the NFL, which in a less audacious time used to cede Sunday night to the Fall Classic.
“You have to assess the realities of the situation and choose your battles,” says Dennis Deninger, a sports and media communications professor at Syracuse and a production executive at ESPN for more than 25 years. “And if you have a chance of winning people over on Tuesday and Wednesday nights instead of Sunday? You don’t want every game to finish second or third to what the NFL has going on.
“It’s like playing baseball on the town green – and now the town green is crowded with media platforms. It’s a forest and you have to move out of town. It’s the reality of the situation.”
To be certain, this is an unusual year for baseball. The 99-day lockout forced a compressed regular season schedule, and expanded playoffs and a late-ending season meant squeezing the postseason in with fewer off days.
A person familiar with MLB’s plans told USA TODAY Sports the league is not certain it will keep the Friday World Series opener in coming seasons. However, the 2023 schedule will once again conclude on a Sunday, and the three-game wild card series that follows would again align the World Series to begin on Friday, Oct. 27.
The person, who requested anonymity to freely discuss logistics still in the planning phase, said the league remains agreeable to a Friday opener and maintaining a Saturday window for fans.
It wasn’t that long ago that the Sunday evening window was wide open for the World Series. But the delicate, zero-sum entertainment ecosystem has changed dramatically since then – particularly the programming habits of the ultimate sporting behemoth.
Comparing TV ratings across eras is often futile, as the landscape can be as different as having three over-the-air channels and an antenna, 150 cable channels and premium options, or today’s virtual forest that includes all of the above plus nine major streaming services, from ESPN+’s 23 million subscribers to Netflix’s more than 220 million global devotees. (Also, video games).
Yet there’s one high-water mark that is undisputed: World Series viewership peaked in 1978, when the New York Yankees, led by “Mr. October,” Reggie Jackson, defeated the Los Angeles Dodgers in six games. It drew a record 32.8 rating, which was duplicated two years later by Phillies-Royals, but the 44.2 million average number of viewers per game remains unmatched.
The downward slope was steady from there, as ratings points dropped roughly five points in five-year increments leading into 1994, when a work stoppage compelled MLB to cancel the World Series. The average series rating slipped into single digits for the first time in 2008 (8.1 for Phillies over Rays in five games) before a Yankees-Phillies six-game combo pushed it back to 11.7 in 2009.
A year later, though, the Sunday stage suddenly got very crowded.
In 1990, when TNT and ESPN began broadcasting Sunday night football games over the full 17-week schedule, they went dark the Sunday of the World Series broadcast, often moving that week’s game to Thursday. ESPN continued the practice through 2005, spanning an era when baseball had more audience muscle and the NFL wasn’t yet an everyday entertainment force.
But the rules of engagement quickly changed. The NFL Network was born in 2003 and by 2006 was broadcasting eight regular season games in prime time on Thursdays. That same year, Sunday Night Football on NBC came along, and soon was not only supplanting Monday Night Football as the de facto “game of the week” but also asserting itself as the No. 1 show on television, period.
For four seasons, NBC adhered to ESPN’s World Series blackout, and Phillies-Yankees Game 4 in 2009 drew a very respectable 13.5 rating on Fox, highest since 2004 and boosting the overall series rating to 11.7.
That ended a year later, when Saints-Steelers on a Halloween Sunday night butted heads with Rangers-Giants Game 4. And an NFL game beat the World Series for the first time.
While the less appealing matchup didn’t help, the Sunday World Series game experienced a 33% ratings drop, and the overall Series rating fell 28%, to 8.4. The World Series has not cracked double digits again without the aid of a seven-game series, and even in 2014 (Giants-Royals, 8.2) and 2019 (Nationals-Astros, 8.1) going the distance did little to goose the numbers.
As for SNF on NBC? It is going on its unprecedented 12th consecutive season as the No. 1 primetime show on television, more than doubling the viewership of the highest-rated scripted shows in 2021.
Of course, major network ratings aren’t the only measure of success these days. MLB remains a power thanks to its tonnage, and more than half of its franchises experienced ratings growth on its regional sports networks, according to the league.
And MLB.TV, despite blackout restrictions that agitate a significant portion of its audience, once again set a record for minutes streamed, surpassing 11 billion for the first time.
All are measures of relative health for a sport in which its average fan is nearing 60 years old, and boisterous crowds in San Diego, Seattle and Philadelphia this month show that on-field success can activate a city across all demographics.
The World Series, though, creates a conundrum that grows more acute with time: How to nationalize a sport that increasingly seems limited to regional appeal?
“Our production team does a phenomenal job of getting to know the players so when they are on the national stage, [fans] learn to care about them, whether it’s Bryce Harper or any of the other players,” says Fox’s Wanger. “You’re interviewing them moments after they’ve hit the potential game-tying or game-winning home run. I think we interviewed Bryce Harper two minutes after his go-ahead home run, after he just mouthed, ‘I can’t believe I just did that.’
“The ratings have been very steady over the last several years. If you look at it in the context of top-performing shows, the World Series is right up there. It’s just a different day than it was in 1985 or 1980, when there just weren’t that many options out there for people to watch.”
Theoretically, this Series should have significant appeal. For the first time in his 11-year career, and more than 13 years after he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated as a 16-year-old, the Phillies’ Harper will grace the Fall Classic.
He’s a name casual viewers should know: Brash and extremely talented, Harper essentially called his shot as a teenager and backed it up, reaching the big leagues and the playoffs at 19, winning the NL MVP award at 23 and producing numerous buzzworthy news clips, be it his clown question quip or a dugout standoff with former teammate Jonathan Papelbon.
Yet Harper’s career arc – from 2012 to now – almost exactly mirrors the period of time in which cord-cutting became prevalent, further stratifying entertainment options and diminishing the impact of stars hailing from traditional mediums.
From 2014 through 2022, the number of broadband-only households skyrocketed, from 2.5% to 33.2%. In that same stretch, social media use ballooned, with Instagram’s 9% growth in 2014 asserting it as the currency for celebrities. The app has been a particular hit with NBA fans, LeBron James (135 million Instagram followers and 52 million more on Twitter) and Kevin Durant (13.1 million, 20.5 million) eager to feed the league’s drama machine.
Harper is active on the apps and shares team and family moments, yet boasts just 1.7 million Instagram followers, just half of the talented but less accomplished NBA star Donovan Mitchell.
And in a previous era, when his accomplishments might be blasted on a national TV broadcast or shouted out on a well-watched SportsCenter, the audience his predecessors enjoyed simply does not exist.
“They’re fine fellows and are great at what they do,” says Syracuse’s Deninger of Harper, Mike Trout and Co., “but they’re not national celebrities. When people talk about the halcyon days when the World Series was getting 50 million viewers and a huge rating, you’re talking the Yankees playing the Dodgers and Reggie Jackson.
“You can probably say ‘Reggie Jackson’ in 50 states and people know what you’re talking about. You go to a state and say, ‘Bryce Harper,’ and you might get a blank stare.”
MLB hopes those stares become less common come next week, with Harper and his red-hot Phillies club taking on what amounts to today’s modern dynasty – the four-time AL champion Astros. And don’t weep for Harper – massive local TV contracts and Fox’s $5.1 billion pact to broadcast the All-Star Game, World Series and other playoff games easily funds his $330 million contract, whether he’s recognized beyond his local Wawa or not.
Fox’s Wanger says the TV industry still considers live sports “the last great campfire,” and says the Friday-Saturday World Series start is augmented by Nielsen’s recently developed out-of-home metric, which has significantly buttressed weekend ratings on nights once seen as undesirable. There’s still billions of dollars to be had with what the NFL leaves on the table.
It just takes a little more flexibility – and leaving behind a traditional night of baseball – to grab it.
“NFL executives were once worried people wouldn’t follow the league in the offseason,” says Deninger. “That’s inconceivable now.”