Fear of Football: The Logic Behind the World Series Schedule

The Kansas City Royals at bat during Game 2 of the 2014 World Series against the San Francisco Giants on Oct. 22 Photograph by Rob Tringali/MLB Photos via Getty Images

When Major League Baseball announced the schedule for the World Series this year, it included a slight shift in the weekday slots. Instead of beginning on a Wednesday, as the series had since 2007, it was set to begin on a Tuesday. In making the move, the league was following the logic of a grade school kid changing his route to school to avoid a bully. A Tuesday start means no Thursday or Monday games, and therefore fewer run-ins with the National Football League, whose regular season games over the last five years have begun to draw more TV viewers than baseball’s marquee event.

Under the new schedule, a seven-game series would overlap with the NFL only during NBC’s game between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints this Sunday night. Sticking with the previous schedule would have meant four potential conflicts: twice with CBS’s new Thursday Night Football, the Sunday night NBC game, and once with ESPN’s Monday Night Football.

Avoiding three head-to-head competitions with the most powerful ratings draw in television might seem like an easy decision, but the move comes at a cost for baseball. The new schedule adds a Friday game, and the weekend is when the fewest Americans turn on the television. When MLB moved from a Saturday night start to Wednesday night in 2007, Bob DuPuy, then the league’s chief operating officer, said that “starting the World Series in the middle of the week, when television viewership is historically higher, will provide more fans with the opportunity to watch the games.”

The chart below shows the total prime-time audience by night in October 2013 and, by extension, the number of Americans with full social lives:

From Thursday to Friday, the potential audience fell almost 10 percent from roughly 114 million to about 103 million. During last year’s six-game World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Red Sox, Fox drew its smallest audience (12.5 million) on Saturday night for Game 3.

By adding a Friday night game, baseball probably loses some of its maximum potential audience for the World Series. But the league gains its best chance of winning the ratings battle on any given night. Here’s how last year’s World Series stacked up against its prime-time network competition (and ESPN’s Monday Night Football):

Saturday night was baseball’s worst absolute rating at 7.4, but also its biggest win, with almost double the household share of the closest competition, 3.7 for 48 Hours on CBS.

Overall, last year’s World Series was the top-rated program on four of six nights. It lost out to The Big Bang Theory, which has now been replaced on CBS by Thursday Night Football, and to Sunday Night Football on NBC. Baseball was lucky to have a Monday Night Football stinker between the Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams on ESPN while Game 5 of the World Series was happening a few blocks away.

Prioritizing each nightly competition makes sense for baseball. In the short term, the league can’t do much to stop the NFL steamroller or to reverse broad trends in TV viewership, but it can pull an audience big enough to beat most network fare. Losing to NFL games provides more fodder for stories about the decline of baseball and leads to charts like this:

Maybe there’s nothing to be done. Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday drew a 7.3 household share and lost, at different points in the evening, to NCIS and NCIS: New Orleans on CBS and The Voice on NBC, leading to stories like this one. Game 2 on Wednesday, however, with no NFL or Big Bang Theory in sight, was the top-rated show of the night.

The good news for sports fans (and the NFL) is that there’s less need to choose between games. From 2006 to 2013, according to Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media, the lowest-rated NFL games on NBC and ESPN aired opposite World Series games.

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