The MLB postseason begins Tuesday night with the National League Wild Card Game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Washington Nationals, and if you are a die-hard fan of those or any other team playing in this year’s postseason, you are about to spend the rest of this month as a member of the walking dead. When your team goes deep into the baseball playoffs, your every night goes deep into morning — you’ll suffer a dangerous, utterly disorienting combination of nerves and fatigue, after four-plus hours spent every evening pacing back and forth and screaming at your television, catching just a few stray minutes of rest before you sleepwalk through a workday, trying to hurry the clock up so you can go out and do it again the next night. We cheer all year for our teams to make the playoffs so that we might destroy ourselves for a month once they get there.
But if you are not a die-hard fan of any of those teams, you’re not going to do any of these stupid things. You’re just going to go to bed like a normal person.
Every postseason, baseball spends most of what should be its signature month getting mocked for how low its television ratings are. You’ll get the headlines this fall, too. The ratings are too low compared to last year, they lost the night to The Masked Singer, more people watch the Pro Bowl than the MLB postseason, the usual sort of pile-on. This is normal and of course part of the fun everyone has dunking on baseball, even though a sport like baseball that’s so regionally focused in the first place is never going to make the bulk of its money through massive TV ratings. (Though it’s worth noting that the World Series still almost always wins its week compared to normal, non-sports programming. It just doesn’t win it by as much as football does.) But I’d argue the real reason that baseball’s ratings are so low, and thus why baseball is always being mocked for dying even though the sport is in better financial and attendance shape that it has ever been (with TV ratings being the lazy person’s version of media criticism), is simply because of start times.
MLB has attempted to make World Series games start a little earlier in recent years — 8:09 ET first pitch last year, rather than some games that didn’t get going until nearly 9 p.m. in the past — but the fact remains: The biggest games in the world of Major League Baseball start at a time of night (and, just as important, time of year) that means only the most dedicated fans are going to stay up to watch. Baseball receives considerable guff for how long its games are — and they were, on average, a record three hours and 10 minutes this season, and they get even longer in the postseason — but all told, that’s not insanely long. The average college football game is 15 minutes longer than your average baseball game, and the CFP title game routinely runs more than four hours. But the difference between your average college football game and your average postseason baseball game is that most college football games are played during the day; prime time for college football is 3:30 ET on Saturday, not 8:09 p.m. ET on Tuesday. You can watch an insanely long college football game and still get out in time for dinner; you watch an insanely long baseball playoff game — which is supposed to be the sport’s biggest showcase — and you’re barely out in time for work the next day.
It has been 32 years since the last World Series game was played during the day — in the 1987 series between the Twins and the Cardinals, in a dome, naturally — and the reason is obvious: On weekdays, when most of the World Series games are played, television networks are incentivized to maximize the eyeballs on an individual game, which means pushing it as far back as possible. Half of television sets are in the Eastern time zone, and the part of the game people watch the most is the beginning: Thus, you want that game starting at a moment with the most eyeballs. (Frankly, if they could get away with it, they’d start them at nine.) By dint of baseball’s postseason schedule, the most important games are both on weekdays and during the fall, which means they take place on school nights. This is why the NBA Finals can get away with starting at 9 p.m.: They begin in June. And with football as competition on the weekends, when exactly is baseball supposed to do a day game? You think people complain about late World Series games? Wait until they have a World Series at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday.
This is logical on the part of the networks, but the toll it takes on the ratings compared to other sports consistently makes baseball look bad. World Series ratings will always look worse when compared to any football game’s because they play football games in the middle of the day. The Super Bowl has the platonic-ideal start time: 6:30 p.m. ET on a Sunday. Start times overcome everything, TV-ratings-wise, even the quality of play or the amount of national excitement. The 2019 Women’s World Cup Final was by far the biggest sports story of this year, the culmination of various plotlines and social movements, with the USWNT legitimately feeling like the perfect encapsulation of what team sports and global sports icons can be in this specific cultural moment. We will be talking about it for decades to come. But you know what it wasn’t? It wasn’t watched nearly as much as the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final was. It was the most-watched soccer game in the U.S. since that game, but it did not match it. The reason was not because this team was duller (it wasn’t), or the game was a drag (it was closer than the last final), or because there was less national focus on this particular game (obviously not; ask the president about that one).
The reason was simple: In 2015, the Women’s World Cup Final started at 7 p.m. ET on a Sunday; in 2019, it started at 11 a.m. ET. As I wrote back in 2015, this was perfect: It allowed “people who had to work the next day to watch the whole thing, kids got to stay up and watch with their parents, and older people could make it to the end before falling asleep, for once.” That 2015 final beat the NBA Finals, the World Series, and the CFP title game in ratings. For all the grand strides women’s sports had made up to that point, the primary reason remained — and the only reason it beat the 2019 final — start time. If you’ve got event programming at 7 p.m. ET on a Sunday, you can’t lose. Look at World Series ratings for the last five years: The highest-rated game, other than a decisive game seven, is consistently game five — the Sunday-night game, the one with the least competition and the best lead-ins. Television ratings, when it comes to sports, aren’t all that different from back when Caroline and the City and The Single Guy were huge hits simply because they were after Friends and Seinfeld on Thursday nights: Television, like real estate, is all about location.
So keep that in mind when baseball’s television ratings this October look bad compared to other sports’, and amateur pundits use them as cudgels with which to bludgeon the sport. But if the Super Bowl had to start at 8:15 on a Tuesday … it’d get hit in the ratings, too. Baseball is a sport built for diehards, and diehards might be the only ones willing to stay up until midnight every night, every week, for a month. The rest of the world might be smart enough not to destroy themselves like that. But Yankees fans, Dodgers fans, Twins fans, my Cardinals fans, everyone still playing … we would have it no other way. Just be gentle to us in the mornings, okay?