How popular is football compared to baseball? People make a huge mistake when they compare the average television rating for a baseball game and the average rating for a football game. There is no question that a single football game has significantly higher ratings than any baseball game. The Super Bowl has viewership of over 100 million people, where the World Series might get one game for 20 million. The two sports are very different and their popularity needs to be viewed differently, because it matters to the overall health of the two sports.
Baseball is played virtually every day for a six month regular season. Football is played weekly for about four months. Already you can see the picture starting to emerge. A Fall and Winter football game is significantly more scarce and certainly more rare than a Summer and Fall baseball game. By its very nature a single football game has more at stake than any baseball game.
Lets look at the Super Bowl and the World Series for example.
The Super Bowl last year had a viewership of 108 million people, it was the most watched TV event last year. The World Series took place over 6 games and had a cumulative viewership of 105 million. Two years ago when the Cards and Rangers played, the Series had a cumulative rating of 132 million.
Now lets look at regular season games. Recently the NFL published the local ratings for all its teams. The Redskins averaged a 26.6 rating on broadcast TV this year, which was only slightly down from last year. The Nationals on the other hand averaged a 2.86 on MASN this year. Now, please allow me to adjust the Nats ratings to take into account the frequency of the team’s games. The Redskins play 16 games a year, the Nats play 162, or roughly 10x the number of games. Very simply, adjusting the Nats ratings they have a 28.6 cumulative rating for every 10 games they play or to put another way: the Nationals have more cumulative viewers for their games on cable TV, albeit over a longer season and more games, than the Redskins do for theirs.
Crazy when you think about, right?
The big question: Why does this matter? It matters because baseball gives a cable channel nightly programming, whereas football is “event” programming. Nightly programming can support an entire cable channel, which brings in huge revenues through subscriber fees. Football doesn’t have that advantage, although NFL teams get their money through huge national TV contracts. It should be noted though that half the Super Bowl audience doesn’t care about the game; they’re only watching for the commercials. Similarly, a growing portion of the NFL viewing audience is only watching for gambling and fantasy purposes, which doesn’t bode well for long-term growth. This is how NFL TV audiences are rising while game attendance is falling. In baseball, TV rating and game attendance usually rise together as the fan base gets invested in the success of the team.