On the Cleveland Indians and TV numbers: While We’re Waiting

On Wednesday, Forbes’ Maury Brown released his annual rankings of MLB TV metrics from Nielsen, the industry’s leader of media analytics. Brown himself is one of the most influential writers on the topic of baseball business. He clearly put in a ton of work to grab all of this data, as he does every year.

The results might be a bit stunning at first to the uninformed follower. The Cleveland Indians, who rank No. 28 in average home attendance during the 2016 MLB season, rank No. 6 among the 29 U.S. MLB teams in terms of primetime cable TV ratings. Of those 29 clubs, 24 were the No. 1 rated programming in their local markets during the course of the season. This mainly goes to show how baseball continues to thrive as a regional-focused interest, while struggling on a national marketing stage. But the Indians numbers sure are impressive individually.

Cleveland’s 7.10 rating average was a 71 percent increase from last season’s 4.10 average. That was the largest year-over-year increase in baseball, trouncing the second-largest increase of only 39 percent by the lovable Chicago Cubs. Other notable TV numbers include a fourth-place finish for the Baltimore Orioles (despite a disappointing No. 19 rank in attendance) and fifth-place finish for the disappointing Pittsburgh Pirates (No. 18 in attendance).

Why do the Indians thrive on TV while languishing in the box office? It’s complicated, as I wrote in detail in While We’re Waiting on Aug. 25. Last week, The Guardian’s Daniel McGraw even wrote about the topic too, citing demographic data and quoting sports business professionals (including yours truly). But the headline at The Guardian was misleading. It stated: “The Cleveland Indians have been hot all year. So why is nobody watching?” Clearly, the TV numbers prove that is not accurate.

So specifically, why is this happening? Some continued theories, building on what I’ve written and shared on this topic: 1) Sprawl hurts here for sure. The size of the ever-expansive Northeast Ohio metropolitan area dwarfs the size of the population that lives within, say, 15 minutes of Progressive Field. So yes, McGraw’s theory about Cleveland’s size maybe not being able to fully support three professional sports teams in 2016 could be fair. Specifically, it’s the size of Cleveland proper that’s peculiar in this instance.

2) The ‘90s honeymoon effect was so grandiose that over time, casual fans got used to not attending major league games in Cleveland. The Indians were so good, tickets were so hard to come by and the stadium was so shiny all at once. We got spoiled. None of those three things could possibly all last forever all together. But the after-effects still might live on. Of course, this 2016 team just won the franchise’s first division title since 2007. That will hopefully lead to increased season-ticket sales into the future, as Crain’s Cleveland’s Kevin Kleps already has reported.

3) I’m still stumped as to what teams like Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland could do to transition TV watchers into ticket purchasers. Sure, it looks on paper like a missed opportunity. But these are smart business franchises. They’re mindful of pricing. They’re mindful of trying to grow the season-ticket base. They know that there has to be a mix of diehard fans and casual fans to make attendance look good year-round. It’s not easy to sell 81 baseball home games year after year.

4) Maybe, after all, attendance just doesn’t matter as much anymore and we’re just making it out to be a bigger deal than it really is? The Indians receive $40 million in annual rights fees from FOX Sports Ohio for their broadcasts, per this FanGraphs analysis. The Indians brought in just shy of 1.6 million fans to Progressive Field this regular season. My first instinct is to think of an average ticket price of, say, $25-30. But when you also add in corporate sponsorships, premium seats and suites, the Indians likely made more than $40 million off those attendees. So attendance obviously does matter and it directly translates into necessary franchise revenue. But when you then think of MLB’s national TV deal ($1.55 billion per year) and other league-wide revenue sharing, attendance-impacted revenue likely makes up a relative small chunk of a team’s entire revenue portfolio than it ever did in the past.

On MLB playoff TV scheduling

My brother is a bit upset about how the first-pitch game time scheduling works for the MLB division series. To give some context, here’s a quick overview of how it’ll work in 2016, and how it worked at least last year too:

The American League has a Tuesday Wild Card game. Then, the ALDS schedule is Thursday/Friday, Sunday/Monday and Wednesday.

The National League has a Wednesday Wild Card game. Then, the NLDS schedule is Friday/Saturday, Monday/Tuesday and Thursday.

So this year, there will be four playoff games on Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, and between two-to-four playoff games on Monday, Oct. 10, 2016 (depending on the number of ALDS sweeps). MLB has a traditional scheduling priority of never having overlapping playoff games. And there only have been evening playoff games in recent history at all, so MLB has shown a willingness to schedule weekday afternoon playoff games.

I looked at last year’s ALDS/NLDS schedules to see how the first-pitch schedules played out. On Friday, Oct. 9, 2015, these were the game times:

12:45pm ET: Rangers @ Blue Jays (Game 2)

3:45pm ET: Astros @ Royals (Game 2)

6:45pm ET: Cubs @ Cardinals (Game 1)

9:45pm ET: Mets @ Dodgers (Game 1)

Neither 2015 ALDS matchup features a sweep. So there were also four baseball playoff games on Monday, Oct. 12, 2015. The game times:

1:07pm ET: Royals @ Astros (Game 4)

4:07pm ET: Blue Jays @ Rangers (Game 4)

6:07pm ET: Cardinals @ Cubs (Game 3)

8:37pm ET: Dodgers @ Mets (Game 3)

For my brother, who lives in Chicago and purchased standing-room tickets to the first two Indians playoff home games, this is a bummer. His comment was the following: “It would be so easy to just space it out another day and have night games. Anything is better than a weekday day game for the most important game of your team’s season.”

The NBA, of course, has uneven playoff series spacing to better schedule games for TV purposes. This can lead to teams having inconsistent days of rest. (For diehard Twitter users, you may recall some Twitter angst in late April and early May when the Cavs and Warriors had uneven playoff rest.) But the NBA’s decision likely also maximizes TV eyeballs in weekday primetime or weekends only.

After sharing this context with WFNY’s Michael Bode, he pointed out how parents with younger children probably greatly prefer the earlier start times. That can finally break the tide of sports games keeping kids, especially on the East Coast, up until the wee hours of the night watching their favorite teams and developing their sports fandom.

So which setup do you prefer? It certainly would appear, based on last year’s precedent, that the Cleveland Indians will play an afternoon game on either Friday or Monday of the ALDS (assuming the series advances to a fourth game). Does that annoy you? Are you able to play hooky from work? Would you prefer the NBA’s setup instead? I’d love to hear more insight on this topic.

And for some sports links around the internet that I enjoyed recently: