Although the World Series won’t begin until Oct. 23, it’s never too early to make a prediction:
No game in the series will be seen by a larger television audience than the one that watched the NBA Finals showdown Thursday between the Spurs and the Heat.
This is just a hunch, of course, and it’s possible a plot line could develop — a seventh game set up by a wild, controversial turn of events in Game 6 — that turns the Fall Classic into must-see TV. More likely, the World Series, once the most anticipated event on the American sports calendar, will continue its nosedive toward irrelevance.
While the notion of football television ratings dwarfing those of baseball is nothing new, basketball’s overtaking of baseball is a relatively recent trend. But it’s a trend. Four of the past five World Series have averaged fewer viewers than corresponding NBA Finals.
Here’s another prediction: During the last week of October, Seattle will be among the 28 major sports markets where fans will be talking about football. The World Series remains a big deal in the cities of the competing teams, but elsewhere, it’s barely a conversation topic.
As a baseball fan, this troubles me. I can reconcile the fact the sport is no longer the national pastime. (The national pastime is football or, more specifically, gambling on football, either by traditional wagers or in fantasy leagues.) I realize, too, that when it comes to one-day spectacles, the Super Bowl rules.
But the World Series is the
culmination of a marathon that spans from the first spring-training soft toss in February to the final, history-is-on-the-line pitch in October. If that pitch is largely ignored by the public — if the Series induces yawns and a yearning to turn off the TV and go to sleep — it doesn’t bode well for a sport whose potential for championship-stage drama is unrivaled.
What can be done to restore the aura of the Fall Classic?
Playing it in the fall, instead of the early winter, is an obvious idea. Lopping off eight games from the regular-season schedule, and going back to the 154-game format God surely intended, pushes the World Series a week earlier.
It doesn’t sound like much, but the late October sports menu is crazy crowded. When the World Series nudges toward (and into) November, casual fans, preoccupied by whatever football game is impacting their fantasy football stats, scream “enough!”
Granted, owners aren’t keen on losing eight games worth of revenue. But they could look at it this way: A schedule with eight fewer games means only four fewer home games. Ensuring that the World Series ends no later than Oct. 24, it seems to me, is an astute trade-off for the revenue diminished by four fewer home games.
An earlier starting date for the World Series should be accompanied by an earlier time for all World Series games, which tend to run longer than movies depicting battle scenes from the 16th century.
The 45 seconds of inaction between each sixth-inning pitch isn’t for everybody, I know, but suspense is what makes playoff baseball — and the World Series — special. I’ve got no gripes about the length of the games. My gripe is that young fans, the baseball fans of the future, are well into the heavy-dreaming phase of their sleep when Series games are decided.
A solution? Schedule an afternoon game, or two, or, heck, all of them. Schoolkids aren’t inclined to care about a World Series they won’t be able to watch to its past-midnight conclusion on the East Coast, but they’ll find a reason to care about a World Series game that begins at 2 p.m.
Baseball’s most daunting challenge isn’t in the all-but-impossible policing of performance-enhancing drugs, or implementing a replay-review system for umpires, or planning Hall of Fame ceremonies in July with no Hall of Famers. Baseball’s most daunting challenge is in regeneration: convincing kids that the World Series matters.
An early memory of mine is of walking into the house after a van dropped me off from preschool. My mother, whose knowledge of baseball could be condensed into the question she often asked — “is it halftime yet?” — told me to sit down and watch the TV.
“This is important,” she said.
The White Sox were playing the Dodgers in the 1959 World Series.
I grew up to cover 134 World Series games from a press box seat, and one game — during the Mets-Red Sox Series in 1986 — from a Fenway Park workroom so cramped some writers frantically were typing game stories on the first-aid cot.
The NBA Finals, thanks to a compelling sixth game in which the Spurs re-enacted the role of the doomed 1986 Red Sox, didn’t disappoint. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Final series has provided even better theater, three games out of four extended into overtime.
Television ratings for both series surely are pleasing to commercial sponsors, and point to the general health of the two leagues.
Baseball is healthy, too, but there’s a caveat:
The World Series begins Oct. 23, and if the pattern holds, the TV audience will be smaller than last year’s TV audience. Last year’s TV audience established a record low.
Memo to commissioner Bud Selig: Fix this. Revive the World Series. Make the best-of-seven playoff for baseball’s championship into a duel demanding the attention of a preschooler heeding his mom’s wisdom.
This is important.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com