The Kansas City Royals and San Francicso Giants begin the World Series Tuesday night: will anyone be watching except for the rabid fans in the two cities represented?
New York Times sports media columnist Richard Sandomir last week detailed how much the World Series audience has fallen in the last 30 years. Once the World Series drew 30 million to 4o million viewers. Now, the event, shown on the Fox network, will be lucky to draw 15 million.
Sandomir noted that most of the playoffs games were shown on a fractured menu of cable channels, prompting baseball fans to exercise their remote controls. The Major League Baseball channel showed some games. One game on the MLB network between well-known franchises the Los Angeles Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals drew a depressing 750,000 viewers, Sandomir reported.
The addition of "wild card" teams now many years ago has slowly been accepted by old-time baseball fans. Classic baseball writers like Red Smith shuddered at the wild card idea, seeing league pennant winners as sancrosanct. Now another wild card team has been added to the postseason mix, with the two wild cards in each league playing in a one-game playoff.
Now, the djminishing breed of baseball pundits see the wild card race as good for the game, allowing fans in more cities to be part of a pennant race. So, the excitement is spread to more cities. And, a wild card team often gets hot during the playoffs and ends up winning the World Series: That will happen this year, with Kansas City and San Francisco both wild cards.
But this has a heavy cost of diluting the World Series' impact. As Sandomir says, the fractured playoffs on cable channels draw little attention, although this year's play has been some of the most exciting in years, with San Francicso beating St. Louis in the National League finals with a dramatic ninth-inning home run and the Royals showing the excitement of sacrifice bunts and great defense, along with several unexpected homers.
The World Series now comes too late in the year, when most of the sports attention has been drawn to football, and even the start of basketball and hockey seasons. For years, when just the National League and American League champions competed in the World Series, it ended by Oct. 3. There was a sense of continuity with the season. Then came an era of league playoffs, which were a best of five format. Again, the World Series ended way before Halloween. The connection with the season wasn't lost. Now, during the seemingly endless playoffs series, the general fans' attention is severed. He or she doesn't want to make the effort to find the games. By the time the World Series rolls around, the interest in baseball is gone.
Of course, for years the World Series was a day event - the television ratings didn't peak until NBC started broadcastng night TV games. Yet, the whole country was captivated by the series.
Part of the romance was seeing whether the American League or National League was best. The teams from the two leagues never faced each other in regular season, so the event had a special aura. Now, with interleague play, that sense of mystery and discovery is gone.
With the team-oriented play of Kansas City and San Francicso, I'll probably give the series a try. In recent years, the event hasn't drawn my interest. As with other longtime baseball fans, I find the event no longer special.