Baseball Connects with Younger Viewers

The national pastime's cable audience became younger during the first half of the season.

Although national cable carriers saw their Major League Baseball coverage produce flat or decreasing household ratings before the All-Star Game, some of the networks picked up eyeballs among males ages 18 to 34. That trend could augur well for the long-term health of a sport that Madison Avenue has often criticized as appealing to an older audience.

Both ESPN and TBS Superstation's MLB coverage sustained household erosion through July 8, while FX was flat versus the first half of the 2000 season, according to Nielsen data. Fox Family Channel posted a 0.4 average for Thursday Night Baseball,
which is in its rookie campaign.

For their part, the 16 Fox Sports Net-branded regionals and Madison Square Garden Network combined to average a 3.26 metered-market household rating through July 5, an 8 percent increase from the 3.01 average during the same span in the 2000 season, according to an FSN analysis of Nielsen Media Research local market data.

With its Wednesday/Sunday night combination, ESPN averaged a 1.22 household rating for 27 games through July 8, down 9 percent from its 1.34 average through the same period in the 2000 season. ESPN2, meanwhile, scored a 0.47 average for 22 first-half games, compared with 0.55 the prior year. Household ratings for highlights and analysis show Baseball Tonight, which runs on both networks, were flat at a 0.63 through 169 shows.

However, ESPN registered a 7 percent increase with males 18-34, while Baseball Tonight
notched a 14 percent advance with the demo. Conversely, ESPN2 games were off 7 percent among young adult males.

"We're looking forward to the rest of the season with the [San Francisco Giants Barry] Bonds chase of the home run record and some tight pennant races," said an ESPN spokesman. "The first half has been particularly encouraging as we've seen increases in the [ratings] performance with males 18-34. That's a very encouraging sign for baseball."

Through its first 14 Saturday night games, FX was flat with a 0.51 household ratings average. The general entertainment network, though, saw its household impressions rise 34 percent to 332,000 households in the draft of its expanded subscriber universe. Among males 18-34, FX pounded a 63 percent gain to 62,000 from 38,000 in the first half of the 2000 season.

Household ratings for TBS Superstation's coverage of the Atlanta Braves declined 12 percent, to a 1.4 rating for its first 50 games to a 1.6 for the same number of contests last year. A Turner Sports spokesman attributed the downturn to the Braves poor start on the field, which translated into an early-season ratings performance in the 1.2-1.3 range.

With the team moving toward the top of National League East standings, ratings have improved, according to the spokesman. TBS is scheduled to air 40 Braves contests during the second half of the year.

Starting off slowly, Fox Family netted 0.3 a household rating for four of its first five games, before building in May and June.

"The biggest challenge for us has been building awareness. We've been working with Fox Broadcast, Fox Sports Net and FX," said Fox Family Channel executive vice president Tom Cosgrove, who also noted that the network has picked up the promotional pace with Thursday tune-in ads in the sports section of USA Today.

"At the start of the season, we were getting the hard-core fan, who tends to be older," Cosgrove said. "Now the audience is getting younger and that is helping us build sampling for our entertainment programming."

Lifted by its coverage of the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners, Fox Sports Net registered an 8 percent increase in Major League Baseball ratings during the first half of the season.

FSN North's coverage of the resurgent, first-place Twins jumped 146 percent to a 4.9 average from a 2.0, according to the FSN analysis.

Meanwhile, viewers in the Pacific Northwest tuned FSN Northwest for the Mariners — which own the league's best record — in record numbers. The Mariners are the highest-rated MLB team on any regional sports network this year, having scored a 64 percent improvement season to date — a 15.3 rating compared with a 9.3 at that stage in the 2000 campaign.

The Milwaukee Brewers on FSN North ranked third in terms of growth, posting a 62 percent increase to a 3.4 from a 2.1 average, while the Florida Marlins on FSN Florida were fourth, netting a 60 percent jump to a 2.3 from a 1.5.