MLB ratings: TV viewership numbers and the future of Major League Baseball

Aug 11, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; A general view of the MLB logo with Colorado Rockies batting gear on it during the game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Colorado Rockies won 12-9. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball returned to a sense of normalcy in 2021 and the MLB ratings this season provide plenty of reason for optimism and concern for the future of the sport.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to postpone the start of the season. As league officials and teams prepared for a shortened 60-game season without fans, everyone knew it would come at a significant cost to annual revenue.

MLB lost $1 billion in revenue in 2020, a figure that would have been even worse if not for players taking reduced salaries, the postseason expanding and the league permitting some fans to attend the World Series.

The return of a 162-game schedule and fans being welcomed back into stadiums will help the entire league. But a look at the MLB ratings shows how the future of baseball is changing as the game quickly loses popularity in the United States.

Troubling signs for World Series, some reasons for optimism

Fox has been MLB’s primary broadcast partner since 1996. The network extended its media rights contract in 2018, agreeing to a seven-year deal worth $5.1 billion. It marked a notable increase over the previous agreement, expiring after the 2021 season, which paid MLB $4.2 billion across eight years for 52 regular-season games, the MLB All-Star Game, two Division Series, one League Championship Series and the World Series.

As the broadcasting fee skyrockets, World Series ratings are dropping. While MLB has seen some fluctuation from 2000-’19, the 2020 World Series finished with troubling numbers.

MLB season:2003200620102012201620192020
World Series ratings:12.810.18.47.612.98.15.1
WS average viewers (millions)25.4715.814.2212.6623.413.919.78

Given MLB playoff ratings also dipped in 2020, both the league and network needed viewership to rebound in 2021. Thus far, the MLB ratings for regionally broadcasted games on Fox have been a mixed bag.

  • MLB on Fox made its season debut on May 23 (Boston Red Sox vs. Philadelphia Phillies). According to Sports Media Watch, it drew a 1.4 rating with 2.59 million viewers, a 10% increase from Fox”s debut broadcast in 2019.
  • MLB ratings for Fox’s regional broadcasts on May 25: 1.93 million people tuned in for the Los Angeles Dodgers-San Francisco Giants or Atlanta Braves-New York Mets), per Sports Media Watch. While it represented a dip from a 2019 broadcast around the same time (2.24 million), it was the third-most watched baseball game in 2021.

Viewership is dependent on the variety of options fans have to choose from and the specific matchup being featured. One thing that helps build a lasting audience is star power. Moving forward, there is some hope in that regard for baseball.

Young stars like Fernando Tatís Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr. and Shohei Ohtani are generating more buzz. Better yet, teams in big markets (Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres, Boston Red Sox and New York Mets) all project as World Series contenders this year.

Fox will be MLB’s primary broadcast partner for years to come, but the league’s ties with ESPN are changing.

Sunday Night Baseball ratings and future

MLB ratings
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

ESPN expanded its baseball coverage in 1990, but the network’s devotion to the game has changed over time The network returned to broadcasting postseason games in 2014, in addition to its Sunday Night Baseball, Monday Night Baseball and Wednesday Night Baseball programming.

But as MLB ratings and its popularity dipped in recent years, ESPN focused its resources on the NFL and NBA. That is reflected in the recent deal the network signed with MLB.

ESPN and Major League Baseball signed a new extension in May, with the network exclusively broadcasting 30 regular-season games per year through 2028. The seven-year deal begins in 2022 and grants ESPN exclusive rights to broadcast any expansion to the MLB Wild Card round. The postseason is expected to be expanded in the next collective bargaining agreement.

The network’s decision was likely made after evaluating its viewership. Ratings for Sunday night’s weekly broadcast dipped in 2020 and have steadily decreased in recent years. However, things are looking up in 2021..

  • Sunday Night Baseball saw 1.53 million viewers (0.9 rating) when the Chicago Cubs faced the St. Louis Cardinals. It marked a 17% increase from the SNB game in a similar 2019 time slot when the Cubs faced the Washington Nationals (1.31 million, 0.8 rating).
  • When the Padres faced the Dodgers in April, 2.01 million people tuned in to watch a potential playoff matchup.

ESPN is never going to see the audience it pulls in for Monday Night Football, averaging nearly 12 million viewers per game. But this season’s numbers are promising for the game.

As detailed by Ken Rosenthal, ESPN is paying less under the new seven-year deal ($3.85 billion) than under the expiring eight-year contract ($5.6 billion). Losing $150 million per season is significant, but MLB could still come out ahead.

  • By cutting the number of games ESPN exclusively broadcasts in half, MLB can sell those matchups elsewhere.
  • MLB will receive approximately $1.81 billion per season from Fox, TBS and ESPN, per Fangraphs’ Craig Edwards, which will be a 17% increase from the expiring contracts.

With all of this in mind, let’s examine what the MLB ratings mean for baseball’s future.

Declining popularity and baseball’s bigger problems

MLB TV ratings
Jul 9, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is interviewed on the ESPN set prior to the 2019 MLB All-Star Game at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

There are small positives for baseball, largely tied into the growth of streaming. MLB.TV, which allows fans to watch out-of-market games, is quickly gaining in popularity. Furthermore, YouTube is broadcasting 21 games in its third season partnered with MLB.

  • MLB announced in April that its streaming service set an 18-day record to open the season.
  • The amount of minutes fans watched of MLB.TV rose 12% from this past season and 43% from 2019.

It’s at least a sign that the league is navigating its way through modernizing sports. But key issues are preventing this game from growing.

Plenty can be made of the MLB ratings on cable and what it means for the game’s future. If comparing it to other pro sports, the NFL lost more viewers from one Sunday Night Football game to the next than any MLB regular-season game drew this year.

Baseball will never return to its peak as America’s Pastime, both the NFL and NBA evolved much faster. While the league started falling behind before Manfred took over, nothing he has done very little to inspire confide for baseball’s long-term outlook. Meanwhile, the NBA and NFL secured a stranglehold of the future with younger fans.

  • The average age of MLB fans is telling. After sitting at 52 in 2000, per Jason Foster, the average baseball fan is now 57. By comparison, the average age of an NFL fan is 50 and it’s even lower for the NBA (42).
  • Just as alarming, per the Sports Business Journal, just 7% of MLB’s viewers are under the age of 18 and the numbers weren’t much better among young adults.

The effects of this still haven’t really hit yet. MLB smashed its revenue record in 2016, blew past that mark in 2018 and the league still cried poor after setting a new record ($10.7 billion) in 2019.

MLB TV ratings
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

There are several driving forces behind this, a majority of which fall on the shoulders of Manfred and league officials.

  • Mike Trout is arguably the best player of his generation, but it hasn’t translated to recognition. Q Score, a marketing research firm that tracks the popularity of celebrities, found that Trout had a 22% familiarity score among Americans. In comparison, 79% of people were familiar with Tom Brady and 74% recognized LeBron James (H/T The Washington Post).
  • Fernando Tatís Jr. is arguably the most popular player in baseball today, but he likely still wouldn’t be as known across the US as second-tier NBA and NFL players.

The 2021 season has also sparked debate about issues on the field, namely the rising strikeout rate and the drop in batting average. MLB ratings are surviving the historic decline in run production for now, but the stats this season hint that might not last for long.

  • 2021 MLB stats: 4.38 runs per game, 8.99 strikeouts per game (MLB record), 7.83 hits per game (second-lowest in league history)

Baseball’s launch angle revolution has played a part in the sport changing, but the weight of its impact is receivng too much attention. A greater issue, one that MLB has ignored until now, is the use of sticky substances that many players viewed as the biggest scandal in sports.

Pitchers already held a massive advantage, with hitters being the ones that had to react. Modern technology, allowing pitchers to fine-tune their mechanics and spin rate, has made hitting a baseball harder than ever. There’s nothing Manfred can do about pitchers taking advantage of tracking data and advanced coaching to improve their game, but MLB must be accountable for the rise in three-outcome ABs.

  • MLB altered the baseball for the 2021 season and The Athletic’s Eno Sarris analyzed how it might be helping pitchers even more.
  • Los Angeles Dodgers ace Trevor Bauer talked about how pitchers doctored the baseball for several years. When MLB did nothing to stop it, others took notice. Bauer’s spin rate on his 4-seam fastball has since increased from 2,358 rpm (March 2019) to 2,800 late in the 2020 season (FanGraphs).

Extreme defensive shifts and hitters’ focusing on power, which MLB contracts incentivize, aren’t the league’s biggest problem. If teams are limited to specific defensive positioning on the field and hitters are the only ones asked to change, the issue won’t go away. That only comes if MLB eliminates what has become the equivalent of pitchers on steroids.

MLB must adapt to survive. League officials must do a far better job marketing baseball’s biggest stars, especially those who will be the face of this sport for years to come. Manfred must start cracking down this season on pitchers using substances to enhance their pitches and umpires.

At a time when there is uncertainty about whether or not Manfred even likes baseball, there is an opportunity to fix the game. Moving the pitching mound back (currently being tested in the Atlantic League), creating more opportunities for stolen bases (spike after rule changes in A-ball) and limiting the size of pitching staffs are all long-term solutions to help solve a problem.

But actions need to be taken down. If not for the fans, who want to see more entertaining three-hour games, then for MLB ratings and revenue. Because if nothing is done, networks will begin to realize broadcasting MLB games isn’t worth the price when baseball can’t build a relationship with its future audience nor produce an entertaining game.