If you turned on SportsCenter, ESPN’s graying signature program, any morning this past week, you were greeted with an EXCLUSIVE! interview with a Rams cornerback criticizing his old coach, Tom Brady explaining that a cameo in a Netflix show wasn’t meant to be a joke about Robert Kraft and massage parlors, a house ad encouraging you to watch Chris Berman make Steve Miller Band jokes over NFL highlights, and Michael Irvin and Stephen A. Smith pretending they were angry at each other over the Cowboys.
The one thing you wouldn’t see: any sort of preview of the World Series. Which starts tonight.
ESPN’s failings with baseball in recent years are well documented, and it has long been the network’s strategy to use its news programs to promote sports it has huge broadcast contracts with (NBA, NFL, UFC) at the expense of those its does not (NHL, MLB). But still: This is the World Series! ESPN spends two weeks staring at Bill Belichick’s neck wattle before the Super Bowl, and the Fall Classic can’t even get a Buster Olney cutaway the day before it begins? But this is the World Series in the year 2019: just another thing happening that you’ll pay attention to if you can just get a goddamned second already.
Television ratings, as we’ve discussed before, are the lazy person’s version of media criticism, but it is still worth noting that from 1968 to 1982, nearly half of the nation’s television sets were tuned to the World Series. Football and the Super Bowl clearly passed baseball in the ’80s and ’90s, but since 2005, the Series’ television share has landed somewhere between 12 and 19 percent, peaking at 37 percent for game seven of the 2016 World Series between the Cubs and the Indians. That’s not dramatically lower than the NBA Finals, but it is lower. This year features the Nationals and the Astros, from the sixth- and seventh-largest television markets, respectively, so a long series may boost those numbers somewhat. But only somewhat.
But numbers are just numbers, and besides, television ratings have never been that effective at capturing baseball’s success; the game is regional and perpetual by nature, and it is not necessarily built to be Event Programming. The appeal to many of baseball is that you can have as much of it or as little of it as you want, because for six months out of the year it’s always there, every day. (Think of it as a river that’s constantly flowing: You can dip your feet in it, you can swim in it all day, you can drive right past it without thinking about it, but it is always there.) Ratings aside, though, if I may veer dangerously into the realm of the anecdotal for a moment … it sure does feel like the World Series is becoming less and less of a big deal to the casual viewer.
Part of this is inherent to the season. The NBA Finals basically have two weeks in June to themselves, weeks when most kids are out of school and can stay up to watch the games; the NBA Finals get talked about in large part because they’re the only gig in town. (It’s also easier for regular working schmucks to stay up until midnight watching games before having to go to work the next day in June than it is in October.) The World Series, on the other hand, has every major sport coming at it at once, and unlike in years past, baseball is shown no deference or fear during what’s supposed to be its biggest week. The NFL no longer shifts games away from Sunday Night Football to stay out of baseball’s way like it once did; college football has the No. 1 team in the country, the defending champion, and Notre Dame–Michigan all playing opposite game four of the World Series this Saturday; and, in perhaps the ultimate brazen move, the NBA is actually beginning its season the same night as game one of the Series.
But then again: It’s possible this is less a baseball problem than a series problem.
It would be absurd for Major League Baseball, or the NBA, or the NHL, to ever make its postseason come down to a one-game playoff. The games are too varied, and full of too many random occurrences, for it ever to be fair that only one game could decide a championship. The fun of the postseason is having teams go at one another every night, poking at weaknesses, getting on each other’s nerves. But if these sports wanted to boost their television ratings and turn their signature events into supernova Oscar-night-level extravaganzas … that’s precisely what they would do. Of the top 50 highest-rated sporting events in 2018, every single one of them was a stand-alone event, a game that wasn’t part of a larger series or the first chapter of a book. They were either NFL playoff games, prime-time NFL games, or Winter Olympic sports, self-contained television packages by their very nature. (An argument could be made that, given how the Olympics are produced for television and shown hours after they happen, they’re almost more a reality show than a televised sporting event.) Only two MLB games and four NBA games made the top 50 in 2017; only two MLB games and one NBA game made it in 2016. Football games are bigger events because more people watch football than any other sport in this country, but they are also bigger events because there are fewer of them, creating a sparseness of product. And their postseasons are much simpler: Lose and you’re out. Lose in the World Series and you can go get ’em tomorrow. But “go get ’em tomorrow” is inherently less dramatic, and thus less of an event, than “do or die.”
And honestly: In a world that is melting down all around us, hey, who has time for tomorrow anyway? The World Series, the center of the American sporting universe for decades upon decades, gets it from every angle: It has relentless competitors, it inherently has less urgency than an elimination game, it’s during one of the busiest sports months of the year, and its games cannot start until many kids on the East Coast have gone to bed. Look, I’m a baseball absolutist, and this is my favorite sporting event on the planet. But I cannot kid myself.
The World Series this year features two incredible teams with deeply compelling stories: the Houston Astros, attempting to become the closest thing baseball has to a dynasty, with two championships in three seasons, against the Washington Nationals, a long-beleaguered franchise (in two different countries, no less!) with a reawakened fan base that is so excited they’re all singing “Baby Shark” together as one.
(Seriously. This is happening. It’s quite remarkable to watch.)
But the Series itself just has too much going against it to capture the national attention. The only time it truly has done so in the past five years was when the Cubs won the Series, the sort of black-swan event that’s unrepeatable. The World Series’ becoming Just Another Sporting Event isn’t necessarily the fault of baseball itself, or the game’s marketing, or a lack of compelling matchups and players. It’s an event structured in a way that is the opposite of how event programming is consumed today. An argument could be made that this is a good thing: The sport is almost countercultural now, and there may be value in steering into the skid rather than trying to upend the very thing that makes the sport unique. They can try to speed up the game, or make it more visually appealing, or accentuate the biggest, most charismatic stars. But the World Series doesn’t have the stage to itself anymore. It seems unlikely it ever will again.