The declining popularity of the World Series

Media firm Magna research today published its estimates of the audiences for the World Series from 1991. They broke the data down by audience per game in each series (of which, of course, there are a possible 7). There was no Series in 1994 due to a strike.

These numbers are estimates, and I have no idea of their potential error; that is, their appropriate plus/minus. Also, the ratings do not show other ways besides traditional TV that people use to follow the Series. I listen to the radio, for example, and sometimes surf to Major League Baseball’s website to listen or watch. These new media sources could be important as we look for trends because, for example, the MLB website feed did not exist until about 2000.

The newspapers published the data in tabular form, which are always hard to read for time series. So I plotted the data in this figure:

Baseball ratings in millions

The number of people who are watching is going down. On average, earlier games have lower ratings than do later games. The opening games (black line) are typically the lowest rated, while games 7 (yellow line) have the highest ratings. Crudely extrapolating the observed trend gives us a guess that next year’s Game 1 will see about 16 million viewers.

But this data, even ignoring the measurement error and the possibility of non-television outlets, can still be misleading because the US population has not remained constant during this period. The next plot shows the same data, but by the percent of US population (I used the Census data for estimates).

Baseball ratings in Percent US population

Back in 1991, about 10-15% of the population watched the Series, but by 2009 that number was down to about 5-7%, a fairly dramatic plunge. Looking at the data this way shows that the slide has more or less halted itself since about 2006. Crudely extrapolating this information says that next year’s Series will be watched by about 6% of the population (again, all is relative to the original data’s potential measurement error).

But this data can still be misleading, especially if we want to estimate the extent of the slide. Plotting just the ratings through time can lead to overconfidence. To show what I mean, I replotted the data for percent US population for Games 1 and 7, and then replotted the same data but relative to the population in 1991.

Baseball ratings in Percent US population rel. 1991

Take Game 1. By 2009 the percent watching was about 6.2%, but the unadjusted percent relative to the 1991 population was 7.5%. Now, this is not a huge difference, but it could be to advertisers, especially if they want to estimate their reach. If we used just the change in ratings and did not normalize by population, we’d be overestimating the percent of viewers.

None of this analysis answers “Why?” I have no clear idea. Maybe starting the Series the same time kids are going trick-or-treating has something to do with it. If the trend towards longer seasons continues, we’ll soon watch Game 7 as we open our presents on the Federally Recognized Holiday of December 25th That Shall Not Be Named.

Maybe baseball shouldn’t overlap with football, which is now the most popular sport in the US. Viewers have a choice between college ball, pro basketball, hockey, Premier League soccer, among others. Summer is long forgotten by the time the Series wraps.

The steroid scandal couldn’t have helped, nor could the infiltration of soccer in high schools. Ideas?


  1. Roscoe

    I think you need to compare this with television viewership in general. For instance, average nightly news viewership of all the major sources over the same time span. If there is a similar trend then we’re probably just seeing that television itself is becoming less popular. I got rid of mine about 10 years ago…………

  2. Mike B

    From a strictly statistical standpoint, do you get a similar pattern if you plot the percent of households that watch the top primetime shows on the major channels? With 200 channels of Satellite programming, On-Demand, BluRay, Xbox, and Internet, it could just be a reflection of declining viewership of the major TV networks.

    But on to the more fun stuff: Briggs, I’m sure you remember the time back when somebody would bring a black and white TV into your fourth or fifth grade classroom so you could watch a World Series game being played in the sunshine of a warm October Day. 1968 in particular might be a memorable year. 🙂

    All three of my kids (10,9, and 6) enjoy playing baseball, and love going to games. But they are in bed before the 4th inning of games played on cold November nights. Watching a 210 minute baseball game on TV on a school night is unthinkable.

    Baseball has never been a great TV sport. And now you’re carpet bombed with baseball on TV for six months. And playoff baseball today has become horrible TV, unless an over-the-hill pitcher gets a smudge of pine-tar on his palm. 🙂

    Soccer is a convenient out, but it’s a fall (outdoor) and winter (indoor) sport. I think it impacts football and basketball much more than baseball.

  3. Speed

    After spending all of two minutes thinking about this I’ve come up with three possible approaches to answering your question.

    Ask a sample of potential World Series viewers about how their viewing has changed over the last two decades and why. Lots of problems with this approach but you’d get to meet a lot of people.

    More Statistics.
    Buy viewing statistics, pay a suitable amount of money to a competent statistician and read the report.

    Send a Check.
    I’m sure that Magna Research published this information because they have (or can quickly create) an indepth report suitable for the board of directors of Major League Baseball, ESPN and NBC Sports. With any luck they’ll sell many copies.

    Unfortunately our friends in the journalism world will continue to write about the continuing fall in World Series viewer stats without doing any of the above.

  4. JH

    2008 was a really bad year for many things. It makes sense that, in general, the last game of the season has the highest rating. I am not a baseball fan. I wonder why Game 2 had the highest rating for year 2006 and Game 6 (the last of the season) had the lowest rating for 1992. Any interesting stories? Can any baseball fan shed some lights on the reasons?

  5. Ari

    Do your data reflect online viewership at all? I know that I, and at least a couple of friends of mine, watch online. I also know that I, without actually having time to watch the games thanks to my crazy hours, spent at least a few minutes peeking at the live stats on Yahoo! Sports.

    Perhaps the problem is not that people aren’t paying attention to the games, but that they simply don’t watch them on networks the way they used to in decades past.

  6. Doug M

    The big changes in Baseball:

    The steroid scandal 2006-2008 — As fewership has stabalized in this period, I don’t see it as being a big negative.

    Home run record — 1998 seems to have created a small uptick in interest but had little holding power.

    Strike 1994 — Interest spikes in the post strike season, but vewership declines after that.

    Wild Card 1994 — I think that this has been a bigger influence than MLB would want to recognise. It makes a long season longer. The 5 game opening round lets too many underserving teams get through to the 7 game series. It highligts that even the 7 game series is mostly a matter of luck. Rather than build the cliamx, it is an anti-climax.

    However, the biggest drop in baseball veiwership happens before 1994.

    1990 — Bob Costas stops calling baseball games.

    It would be interseting to see this data going back into the 80’s.

  7. Ted

    So far, no one has mentioned the obvious. (not that it’s necessarily true) It could simply be that people don’t like baseball as much as they used to.

    To those of you over 50:
    Did you play baseball as children? My understanding is that, a generation before mine, boys would just get together, and organize their own games. Today, children have far less freedom. Letting your 9 year old boy just, “go out and play,” is now socially frowned upon. In many areas, it’s actually becoming borderline illegal.

    And the rise over the past 30 years of computers, video games, and other indoor time wasters, corresponds so well with the restriction of free play time that I’m left wondering which is the cause. Regardless, the fact remains that far fewer boys casually play baseball today than in past years. And that leaves a smaller likely audience for televised games, as those children age.

  8. The Boys of Summer playing in November.

    Shorten the season. It should all be over by the second weekend in October.

  9. Ari


    I played baseball as a kid, and most of my friends played a sport or two.

    I do find it funny, however, that you call video games “time wasters.” I remember the adults around me telling me they were a waste of my time as well, but they had no problem with sitting and watching the tube for a few hours. I guess one man’s time waster is another’s glorious hobby. A bookish friend of mine finds the idea of watching sports on the TV to be the epitome of time wasting– I think he’s crazy.

    And maybe I was just lucky, but I spent most of my weekends out and about, riding around the neighborhood on my bicycle. So did most of us. Granted, this current generation of kids may be unlike me, a later 20-something.

  10. Doug M

    As a 40 year old I can say that I have never played baseball if it wasn’t “organized”. 18 kids won’t just find each other on the sand lot. Sometimes we played “stickball” — slow pitch, no equipment, no baserunning, minimal defense. We ususally played on school grounds.

    I see far more kids (and little kids, too) playing in baseball (tee-ball, soft ball) leagues today than ever did when I was young. However, I am not sure that childhood participation translates heavily into adult fandom. Everyone in America played soccer as as a kid, none watch it as adults. Few have played more than backyard touch football, but millions watch the pro game.

  11. Mike B


    I don’t think many people under 50 are aware that a ghost runner can’t score from first on a double.

    Most people under 40 don’t even know what a ghost runner is.

  12. John M

    Pick-up game with 18 kids? Unheard of.

    10 total was quite doable. Right field out, pitcher’s hand out, batting team provided the catcher (lob pitch) except on a play at the plate, where the pitcher usually covered.

    Even 8 would work, just needed a quick infielder.

    Hardest part was getting a fresh baseball, although used to use a rubber ball alot.

    If you could find a good wall, could even play fastpitch “strikeout” with just two.

  13. JH

    None of this analysis answers “Why?” I have no clear idea.

    Put on your glasses, find a usable ruler (it can be your spouse) and maximize your browser window. Ready? Now, delve in the graphs. Do you see what I see? Did you notice the ratings went up this year? Is it just a coninkidinky? Don’t think so. Yeah…blame it on George W. Bush. 🙂

  14. James S

    Surely the way of getting more viewers would be to open the “world” series up to the rest of the world?

  15. Briggs

    James S,

    Let’s do it. Who do we have to convince?

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