There’s an old saying in journalism: It takes three to make a trend.
In 2014, the Indians had some of the highest television ratings for a major league market. This year, they had some of the lowest. So which one is the exception? Or are they both outliers?
Really, television ratings for the Indians – much like the performance of the team itself – have been all over the place. In 2013, the team drew a 5.5 rating, probably due in part to the hiring of a manager with a pattern of success, Terry Francona, and the success that materialized as a result – the Indians won the last 10 games of the season on the way to an all-too-brief playoff appearance in the Wild Card game.
The 2013 season also coincided with an off-the-field move by Indians owner Larry Dolan. Dolan had set up SportsTime Ohio, a channel that would have primary rights to broadcast Indians games, in 2005. Dolan’s brother Charles made his fortune in television in cable’s early years, developing HBO, among other things.
Ultimately, the network became part of Fox Sports in 2012, with a purchase price around $230 million (rumors that the sale was a prelude to Dolan selling the team never materialized). Since then, Indians programming has been a hybrid, with Fox Sports branding, but STO remains a separate network to avoid potential conflicts with other Fox Sports Ohio programming (they also carry the Reds in Southern and Central Ohio markets).
The 36 percent drop in ratings for the Indians was the second-biggest drop, but not even the biggest within the American League Central Division: The White Sox – last in local television ratings – saw a 42 percent drop. (The Tigers, who finished last in the Central this year after four straight division titles, have seen a 21 percent ratings decline since 2013.)
So the questions become: Is this the new normal? And is this a reflection on the Indians? Or Major League Baseball in general?
Art Modell once said that the genius of former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle is that he was able to convince 24 Republicans to think like socialists. The key to the NFL’s popularity and its national appeal has been television. The schedule of a game a week lends itself to event programming, and television deals have been negotiated by the league as a whole.
Baseball, on the other hand, hasn’t been that unified. Generations of baseball fans throughout the Midwest were able to listen to the Cardinals on KMOX, and the nighttime signal for WWWE in Cleveland (now WTAM, still the flagship for Indians radio) could be received, according to host Pete Franklin, “In 38 states and half of Canada.” But when television started to supplant radio as the primary broadcast medium, reach got smaller. And absent a national contract (beyond the old Game of the Week on NBC or Monday Night Baseball, in the years when ESPN either didn’t exist or were airing Australian-rules football), many teams cut their own deals with regional broadcast partners – or new cable stations, which needed the programming (think the Braves on TBS or even the Indians on WUAB in the 1980s).
In the 1970s, the Super Bowl supplanted the World Series as the most-watched sporting event in America, and baseball’s popularity in America has been slipping ever since, in part because of demographics (its fans are getting older) and in part because of self-defeating behavior (World Series games that don’t end until after midnight, labor stoppages, etc.).
One of the other reasons for such a steep decline in Indians ratings is because they had a place from which to decline. The Indians had the fifth-highest television ratings among Major League teams in 2014. Another lackluster season – which started badly and probably turned off some casual fans – might have led people away from watching the Tribe. Also, as the Indians stumbled out of the gate in the spring, they faced competition from other Cleveland sports programming – the Cavaliers, making their first playoff push in five years.
And the Cavs show the easy answer for the Indians – really, for any team having an identity problem: Winning. If the Indians roll to a division title next year, then you’ll see a drastic uptick in television ratings.
It worked for the Royals, whose run to the World Series last year has resulted in a 114 percent increase in local television ratings.
Photo: Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer