Games on Fox, ESPN up in viewers, young demos


NEW YORK -- The NBA and NHL playoffs are in full swing, but it's the early season of Major League Baseball that is hitting its ratings stride right out of the gate.

MLB telecasts on Fox and ESPN have been getting strong ratings in the first month of the season. Fox's "Saturday Afternoon Game of the Week" has been averaging 4 million viewers so far, its best start to a season ever. ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" has been on a tear as well, up 56% to an average 3.5 million viewers compared with this part of the season last year. (All MLB telecasts are up 23% to 1.2 million viewers.) There have been records on the regional sports channels as well.

"Baseball is hot," said Len DeLuca, senior vp programming and acquisitions at ESPN.

For Fox, it's the first time the network has carried Saturday games starting the first week of the season instead of in mid-May. It's so far, so good for Fox.

"I've always believed that at the start of the season, there's excitement across all markets," Fox Sports president Ed Goren said. "To come on as we have in the middle of May was walking away from really good potential ratings that comes from that excitement."

Everybody expects the Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets and Atlanta Braves to compete. But there are a lot of surprises a month into the season, including strong starts by the Cleveland Indians, Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers.

"Everybody feels for the most part that this is their year," Goren said.

There are a few other factors helping Fox. Instead of having a bunch of regional games, Fox is now carrying one and sometimes two games across the country. And the start time is better: 3:55 p.m. ET instead of 1 p.m. as in previous years. Goren believes that these factors help Fox.

"What we're finding is that the national appeal of a Yankees-Red Sox (or) Cardinals-Cubs game is actually helping ratings," Goren said.

Fox and ESPN have seen jumps in the younger demos, which Goren believes is tied to the fact that Nielsen is counting college and out-of-home viewing. It's also proof to Goren that baseball isn't just for your father and grandfather. Fox is up 17% among men 18-24 and 21% among men 18-34. ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," for instance, is up 67% among men 18-34 and up 64% among men 18-49.

"I think that one reason that the younger demos are much stronger is that Nielsen is now canvassing college campuses, and guess what they're finding? They're watching baseball," Goren said. ESPN's DeLuca said that its franchise "Baseball Tonight" also is capturing the younger demos.

This postseason will be the first under a new rights agreement in which Fox Sports will still have the big-ticket events (the All-Star Game and the World Series) while sharing the League Championship Series with Turner Sports. Turner has all of the Divisional Series this year. ESPN is in the first full year of its new rights agreement, which gives it flexibility on Sunday, Monday and Wednesday night telecasts (and gave ESPN the nonexclusive rights to a Friday night Red Sox-Yankees game on short notice).

There also are some pretty good story lines already this season, from ESPN's telecasts of the inaugural Civil Rights Game and the Jackie Robinson tribute game to Barry Bonds' quest to surpass Hank Aaron as MLB's home run king.

"Baseball provides you with so many wonderful news stories and opportunities every year," DeLuca said. "And this year, I think we're perfectly positioned to capture it."