MLB Ratings Tepid in First Half

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Cable networks say Major League Baseball ratings haven’t hit any home runs during the first half of the season, but they aren’t striking out among viewers either.

ESPN, the Fox regional sports networks, TBS and Superstation WGN were posting either flat or slight ratings declines going into baseball’s All-Star break. Executives remain hopeful ratings will climb as the pennant races heat up.

LIFT FROM SOX-YANKS

Heading into last week’s Mid-Summer Classic, ESPN2 ratings grew 17% to a 0.7 average over 25 telecasts, compared to 38 games last year, according to ESPN officials. ESPN hasn’t enjoyed the same success: The network’s 47 telecasts are down 9% to a 1.0 from a 1.1 versus 37 games last season.

ESPN senior vice president of research and sales development Artie Bulgrin said the fluctuation in ratings between the two networks was due mostly to the quality of team matchups. “We had a couple of exceptionally high-rated [Boston] Red Sox-[New York] Yankees games [on ESPN2], which has helped to boost the averages,” he said.

For games aired through July 10, Fox Sports Net reported a 3.7 average within the DMAs served by 13 owned-and-operated regional sports networks, flat from the same period last year.

FSN chief operating officer Randy Freer said the numbers were boosted by the addition of telecasts for ratings-strong teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Angels, as well as the Houston Astros.

Fox also experienced strong performances from such teams as the Minnesota Twins, which posted a 7.3 rating for Fox Sports North (up 51%), the Milwaukee Brewers (4.1, up 27% on Fox Sports North) and the Atlanta Braves (5.8, up 39% on Fox Sports South).

As for TBS, which like the Braves is owned by Time Warner, its 41 baseball telecasts through July 3 batted at a 0.9 average, even with last year’s performance to that point. TBS executives say the ratings are holding despite the team’s subpar first-half performance.

“There is excitement among viewers for this young team, and TBS has done a good job of diversifying the games between the first half and second half of the season,” said a network spokesman.

In Chicago, Superstation WGN has not seen good results with its national telecasts, despite the White Sox’s long lead in the American League Central. Through the first 18 games, the Pale Hose telecasts attracted 205,000 households on average, down 11.9% from a 244,000 average for 19 games in 2004. The club was also off among adults 18 to 49 and 25 to 54.

CUBS COVERAGE DOWN

WGN’s Cubs coverage, meanwhile, was also off in all measures through 36 games, versus 42 at the halfway point a year ago.

A network spokesman said that weather and more games during the daytime, as WGN continues to push its primetime slate, have hurt the baseball ratings.

Despite baseball’s sluggish first half performance, Kagan Associates sports analyst John Mansell says cable baseball ratings still perform better than most ad-supported networks.

“Baseball, just like most other sports, is affected by the long-term trend toward audience fragmentation where all ratings are going down,” he said. “But when you look at all cable networks where the average rating is somewhere around a 1, baseball is right in the ballpark. It’s all relative.”

Bulgrin said baseball could surge in the second half as the pennant races come down to the wire.

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