In a season unlike any other, Major League Baseball saw viewership increase while ratings were down due to a lowered number of households being tracked. This is how – in an upside-down season – the ability to compare sports viewership numbers from last year to 2020 is not apples-to-apples. It’s more like apples to apple cider with orange zest.
This year Nielsen
To add, because Nielsen moved to track people that are mobile, the total number of traditional TV households have dropped. With that, nearly every MLB RSN shows a ratings decline, while viewership has gone up. So, much like the rest of 2020, making true sense of whether viewership was up, down, or sideways, requires some guesswork.
Here’s what we can consider as part of the data at hand based on their place in the standings throughout the season. The Royals and Brewers likely saw viewership decline. The Reds were likely flat, or slightly up or down. The Padres were likely up. In other words, the data we do have available showing league-wide viewership may not have been adversely affected. To add context, the Toronto Blue Jays, who air games on SportsNet in Canada, and our outside Nielsen tracking have provided viewership data.
Based upon the 25 metered MLB RSNs for 2020 in the U.S., viewership was up 4.2% for the 60 game regular season based on P2+ (People ages two and up) from the start of the season on July 23rd through Sept. 27th. That’s promising news for the league that had to compete with the NBA and NHL who pushed out their seasons in the wake of the pandemic. Unsurprisingly, the Yankees and Dodgers led the way in average viewers per game due to market size, followed by the Phillies, and Cubs.
In terms of the largest average viewership increase, the Chicago White Sox led the way with growth of 136% (90,708 compared to 36,040 in 2019), Oakland A’s up +108% (44,257 compared to 21,232 last year), the Los Angeles Dodgers, who reached a deal for carriage on DirecTV earlier in the year, came in third with an 84% increase (233,939 compared to 126,862 in 2019), and the San Francisco Giants saw a 42% increase (86,008, compared to 60,573 last season).
“The home team viewership on Regional Sports Networks did not come as a surprise to us,” said Craig Sloan, executive Vice President, Home Team Sports. “The love that fans have for their home teams is in their DNA and often passed down from generation to generation. The absence of live sports for a time only made their bonds stronger.”
All told, 14 of the 25 measured markets saw increases averaging 36% compared to 11 in decline averaging -22% in average viewership.
Leading declines were the Boston Red Sox on NESN (-54%), Seattle Mariners (-36%), and Los Angeles Angels (-34%), and Pittsburgh Pirates (-34%).
The league’s lowest viewership average was the Miami Marlins, who despite a 2% increase saw an average of 21,082 per game. They were followed by the Baltimore Orioles (36,701 per game, down -12% from 2019), and Oakland A’s (up 108% but just 44,257 per game).
Viewership Growth Across All Demos
A key win for MLB and the networks are seeing growth across age demos. With the addition of digital, MLB content is finally tracking what many have assumed through streaming.
The biggest viewership growth from last year’s data is the 18-34 age group that saw a +53% change (13,171 average compared to 8,583 last season). The 18-49 age group grew +31% (29,199 for 2020 compared to 22,264 for 2019), and a +16% growth for the 25-54 age demo (32,327 compared to 27,843 last season).
While Viewership Up, Ratings Down
As noted, total television households dropped with the change in how Nielsen is capturing viewership, and with it, ratings dropped. Overall, the league saw a -11% decline in ratings compared to a 4.2% increase in viewership. The biggest ratings drop was the Boston Red Sox on NESN (2.14 compared to 5.15 in 2019), followed by the Los Angeles Angels on FOX Sports West (-45% drop, 0.78 rating compared to 1.29 last season), and Seattle Mariners on ROOT Sports NorthWest (-38% decline, 2.17 rating compared to 3.49 in 2019).
A ratings point represents 1% of the total television households in a given market showing overall interest, rather than total viewership. While the Cleveland Indians have the highest rating number for 2020 (6.61) compared to a 2.50 rating for the New York Yankees, the Yankees saw viewership average 118,739 more per game.
The Blue Jays See Sizeable Increase
While not factored into the Nielsen numbers due to not tracking in Canada, according to SportsNet viewership in the country was exceptionally strong for 2020.
The 2020 Blue Jays on Sportsnet averaged 500,000 viewers, up +23% year-over-year, and reached 9.8 million Canadians (27% of the population).
MLB Strong When Compared To Overall Viewership
While some may see the 4.2% increase in measured viewership nothing to get excited about, Major League Baseball continues to look exceptionally strong when you consider how it sits against overall broadcast television consumption, which is down -24% year-over-year.
What Should We Take Away From The Numbers?
It will be several seasons before viewership numbers begin to settle in. The ability to measure 162 games to 60 and the updated Nielsen numbers show the 2020 comps to 2019 are not perfect. And, the possibility that the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on the schedule is a real possibility in 2021. Throw in that the four MLB RSNs that weren’t on the list this year likely make their way in next. When we get to a normalized schedule and normalized measurement, then we’ll see something more definitive.
To add, carriage change will continue. The Chicago Cubs started their own regional sports network this year (Marquee) that affected their numbers. The Dodgers increased reach. Teams will ebb and flow in how they are performing in the standings, which could be affected next season with MLB moving to 16 teams in the playoffs, and clubs like the Marlins and Reds making the postseason for the first time in a considerable period, and teams like the Brewers and Astros backing their way into the playoffs.
Below shows the average P2+ numbers for the 25 metered MLB RSNs for 2020. That includes 21 LPM Market Average, MLB on RSN data as of 09/27/2020 courtesy Home Team Sports.