The 2023 MLB regular season is in its final week, and the league’s national media partners are closing the year on a disappointing note.
Despite some positive signs at midseason, one national partner ended the season virtually flat and two ended the year up single digits.
While “one flat, two up” seems positive, back in July, the one flat partner was still flat, while the two that were up were both up double digits.
Per the Sports Business Journal, ESPN finished the season averaging 1.45 million viewers for Sunday Night Baseball, including the ESPN2 KayRod Cast broadcasts. That’s roughly the same as a year ago. A year ago, ESPN had four Yankees-Red Sox games on Sunday Night Baseball compared to just two this year (despite both teams struggling, the matchup is still a viewership magnet). Viewership for the KayRod Cast cratered in its second (and final) year, averaging 138,000 viewers per game in 2023 – a decline of 30% from 2022.
TBS ended up with a 4% viewership increase from 2022, but at midseason, the network’s package of Tuesday games was up a stunning 41%. It fell back to the pack in a big way once the second half came along, and only finished up in the mid-single digits. A specific average wasn’t noted by SBJ, but TBS averaged 338,000 viewers at midseason.
In a weird quirk, Fox’s overall average between Fox and FS1 was up 5%, but the average on each of Fox and FS1 was down. This is because games were moved from FS1 to Fox, increasing the viewership of those games while still lowering the average viewership on Fox. FS1 averaged just 278,000 viewers per game, a record-low for the network (slightly up from the midseason average of 267,000), while Fox averaged 1.89 million viewers for its packages, down 10% from last year.
So, what’s the reason for the viewership drop, despite the rule changes creating a quicker, more exciting game? Ultimately, traditional viewership draws playing terribly didn’t help matters. The St. Louis Cardinals were essentially done by June. The New York Mets, an offseason darling, cratered later that month and haven’t been a factor since. The Yankees fell apart after the All-Star Break, the Red Sox have been aggressively mediocre all season, and both teams have been overshadowed by the Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays since just about day one of the season.
While the success of teams like the Orioles and Rays may be good for baseball as a whole, it’s not great for the league’s national media partners. We saw the same thing a decade ago with the success of the Kansas City Royals, a fantastic story for the parity of the league and a strong local draw, but not a national draw in the slightest.