On the strength of the home run chase and a strong National
League wild-card race, ESPN enjoyed a 27 percent increase in its 1998 Major League
Baseball coverage compared with last year.
Baseball's ratings resurgence was also prevalent on
the regional side -- particularly in St. Louis and Chicago, where the Cardinals' Mark
McGwire and the Cubs' Sammy Sosa battled for the all-time home run title, the network
ESPN finished the baseball season averaging a 1.9 rating --
above the network's expectations, said Artie Bulgrin, vice president of research and
development for ESPN. Bulgrin added that the service was able to carry the momentum build
toward the end of last year into 1998, and it then capitalized on the frenzy surrounding
the historic home run chase.
"We started opening day with a 2.6 rating, and we
subsequently set [ratings] records for our All-Star Home Run Derby coverage, as well as
our home run record and wild-card-race coverage," he said. "The second half of
the year certainly captivated the interest of Americans."
ESPN set a network baseball-ratings record when its Sept. 7
Chicago Cubs-St. Louis game drew a 9.5 rating. It also set a baseball-viewership record
with its Sept. 28 coverage of the San Francisco Giants-Cubs wild-card playoff game, which
was seen by more than 7.5 million households, including about 1.4 million through
over-the-air coverage in San Francisco and Chicago. The game earned an 8.1 rating in cable
It was unclear at press time whether ratings for Fox Sports
Net's and FX's baseball coverage were up from last year. Baseball ratings rose
for several regional-sports networks, however, paced by Fox Sports Midwest's 7.0
rating for Cardinals telecasts -- almost double last year's ratings, according to
ESPN was able to capitalize on baseball's increased
popularity despite losing three September Sunday-night games as part of a dispute between
the network and the league. The network wanted to move baseball to ESPN2 to accommodate
its new Sunday-night National Football League package.
As it turns out, both MLB and the NFL helped ESPN to post
significant third-quarter rating numbers. ESPN's 24-hour numbers were up 14 percent
during the quarter, boosted by a 36 percent ratings increase for baseball, compared with
the third quarter of last year, and a 350 percent increase in Sunday-night football games
over the ratings from Turner Network Television's telecasts during the same period
Also, the network said, SportsCenter's ratings
increased during the 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. shows.