While there was plenty of good news for Major League Baseball on the ratings front this year, there was also some bad news: national ratings were down on Fox, ESPN, and TBS. Despite the ratings plummeting, MLB managed to wring even more money out of all three networks in the next TV contracts.
Fox's Saturday games have been in a steady ratings decline over the past decade, falling from a high watermark of a 2.7 rating and 3.6 million viewers in 2005 to just a 1.7 rating and 2.5 million viewers in 2012. The primetime slate of games was down 23% in ratings and 24% in viewers from last season, but they still outperformed Fox's Saturday day games, drawing a cumulative 2.0 rating and 3.2 million viewers.
Over on ESPN, the news was pretty bad as well. Sunday Night Baseball drew just a 1.2 rating and 1.8 million viewers, the lowest for the exclusive game since 2005. Sunday Night Baseball was down 20% overall in terms of rating, and 22% overall in terms of viewers. ESPN has lost a million viewers for those games since 2007, when they averaged 2.7 million viewers. Monday Night Baseball and Wednesday Night Baseball also fell in ratings and viewers after a brief uptick last season, dropping to a 0.8 rating and 1.2 million viewers after a 1.0 rating and 1.5 million viewers in 2011. That comes out to another drop of roughly 20%.
Finally, there's TBS, continuing to slide downward after peaking in their inaugural 2008 season. TBS's Sunday games drew their lowest viewers total ever at just 448,000, a 19% drop from last year and the first time in the five seasons of Sunday baseball on TBS viewership has been less than half a million.
One bit of positive news though: MLB Network's broadcasts saw a slight jump of 6% in viewers to 222,000, or slightly under half that of TBS despite being blacked out in the local markets for the games and normally happening on weeknights, while also on a channel that's nowhere near as widely available as TBS. That has to be considered a great success for the league.
There is definitely a pattern in these numbers. All three of the major networks were down between 19-23%, indicating to me that this isn't necessarily a network problem, but an evolution in how people watch sports. Before the advent of MLB.tv, people would watch the national games more because it was a rare chance to see out of market teams. Now with MLB.tv, MLB Extra Innings, and illegal streaming, fans can watch whatever team they want, whenever they want (provided that nonsensical blackouts don't come into play).
In my mind, this really doesn't have much to do with a lack of fan support because attendance numbers tell the opposite story. The 2012 MLB season was the most attended season since 2008, and the fifth-highest all-time. Ratings for Division Series playoff games have been steady in comparison to last year, and the new Wild Card playoff games also did very well. This is simply the direction that watching sports is trending in, and the networks don't know what the hell to do to force eyeballs onto their national games.