After experiencing flat ratings for the first half of the Major League Baseball season, cable-sports-network executives are hopeful that as pennant races heat up, more than the baseballs will be juiced.
Fox Sports Net, FX and ESPN all reported either flat or declining MLB ratings for the first 13 weeks of the 2000 baseball season compared with last year's numbers.
Through 12 telecasts, FSN's Thursday-night game of the week is averaging a 0.8 rating, about 7 percent behind last year's numbers for the same period, Fox officials said.
The numbers for FX are slightly lower at a 0.5 for its Saturday-night telecasts, which is virtually even with last year's 0.51 rating, network executives said.
FX, however, did post a 16 percent gain in household impressions, mostly due to a jump of nearly 20 million subscribers compared with last year.
As expected, baseball is performing well on regional sports networks, where local teams have strong appeal. Through May, Fox's 21 regional services are averaging a 3.9 rating, on pace with last year's numbers, the programmer said.
"Baseball continues to be very strong for us, primarily through our home-team networks," FSN executive vice president of programming and production Arthur Smith said.
ESPN posted a 1.3 rating for 12 Sunday-night and 12 Wednesday-night telecasts, down 1.1 percent from last year.
Even the network's popular "Home Run Derby" event, which aired prior to last week's All-Star Game, fell short of expectations.
The event-which was plagued by injuries to key participants including Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds-drew a 5.73 rating, down 20 percent from last year's 7.51.
ESPN vice president of research and sales development Artie Bulgrin said he wasn't disappointed about the first-half numbers, despite the fact that they did not improve from last year. "Whenever you can maintain your ratings strength year-to-year in a environment that's increasingly cluttered," it's acceptable, he added.
The network's first-half baseball ratings remained on par with last year's numbers despite starting off the season slow, according to Bulgrin. ESPN's exclusive Sunday-night coverage began one week into the season and suffered through an early blowout game and a rainout.
The network also lost an attractive June New York Yankees-New York Mets interleague game due to rain. (It was made up later as the back end of a crosstown doubleheader).
And Bulgrin pointed to several Wednesday-night head-to-head games on ESPN and ESPN2, as well as to stiff competition from the broadcast networks during the May sweep week.
"We started late and had some bad luck," he said.
Nevertheless, network executives believe ratings will increase as the division pennant races heat up.
"We're expecting some great races to heat up, which could turn into a successful second half for the network ratings," Bulgrin said.