For a sport like baseball, a sport driven by statistics and analytics, one alarming stat many commentators and fans alike have pointed to is the record-low viewership of the World Series.
Is that really something the MLB should be alarmed about, or are analysts overreacting?
I would argue the two reasons behind the sudden dip in viewership is simple: The way we consume digital media has changed, and the Texas Rangers and Arizona Diamondbacks are not big market teams.
Despite the apparent falloff in World Series viewership, in-person attendance at games took its largest jump (9%) in 25 years, according to MLB.com. The last time such a significant uptick in attendance was observed was during the now infamous 1998 homerun chase between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire.
Even though viewership was lower for the 2023 World Series compared to years past, it still dominated primetime television.
MLB.com says the World Series has outperformed the top primetime shows by a sizable margin in each of the last seven years.
With a plethora of streaming services to choose from and greatly increased cable options, there is more to watch than ever before.
Past generations had limited options, so baseball received higher viewership by virtue of it being one of the main programs on national television.
These, and other concerns, are not new. In 2022, the MLB was accused of using “juiced” baseballs that were altered slightly during production to travel further.
Meredith Wills, an award-winning astrophysicist at the Society for American Baseball Research, tested hundreds of balls and concluded some balls used for high-profile games like the playoffs and New York Yankees’ games were designed to travel further.
The balls were used in some Yankees games, ostensibly, because Aaron Judge, outfielder for the Yankees, was chasing down an American league home run record.
Batting averages and stolen bases have declined over the past decade, while the average game time has increased over that same span. To reverse those trends, the MLB made some major rule changes for the 2023 season.
The advent of the pitch clock (plus associated rules) and larger bases were supposed to speed up the action, increase batting averages and allow for more stolen bases.
The changes were designed to bring in a younger audience with a shorter attention span and a desire for a more action-packed game.
Has it worked? Well, sort of.
Game times have decreased. Averages have increased. Stolen bases have increased.
But perhaps this is all an overreaction. The root of the panic seems to stem from the combination of more program variety and small market teams having a smaller fanbase.
Spotrac has the 2022 combined payroll of the World Series opponents, the Phillies and Astros, listed as nearly $350 million. The combined payroll for the 2023 World Series was $210 million, with nearly $150 million of that coming from the champions, the Texas Rangers.
The Tampa Bay Rays were one of the best teams in baseball this season. Their average attendance in playoff games was only 19,000, which is well below the league average.
The Rays ranked in the bottom four in payroll in 2023.
ESPN has the Rangers and Diamondbacks ranked outside of the top 15 for average attendees per game.
Small-market teams simply command less of a fanbase than big-market teams. This is not the fault of the MLB or indicative of declining popularity. When less popular teams play in big games, viewership goes down.
The issue does not lie with the collapse of the sport, and fans are not leaving the sport of baseball in droves. The MLB just cannot expect eternal increases in viewership with an oversaturated television market and two small market franchises in the World Series.