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Bonds Saga Helps to Boost MLB Ratings

Controversial slugger Barry Bonds’ pursuit of the all-time home-run record has helped ESPN to generate a ratings hit during the first month of its Major League Baseball coverage.

Through May 17, the network averaged a 1.2 household rating for 25 live MLB telecasts, a 20% jump from a 1.0 for 22 telecasts during the same period last year.

ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball telecasts are scoring significantly higher numbers than last season, as well, connecting for a 1.8 average for seven telecasts, up 38% compared with a 1.3 in 2005, according to Nielsen Media Research data.

Further, five of ESPN’s six highest-ranking MLB games over the past two years aired during the first month of the 2006 regular season, topped by ESPN’s April 2 St. Louis Cardinals-Chicago Cubs Opening Day telecast, which generated a 2.3 rating.

That list also includes two San Francisco Giants telecasts, notably the club’s May 7 contest versus the Philadelphia Phillies, which finished third with a 2.0 rating. Bonds hit his 713th home run during that game, placing him one short of Babe Ruth’s mark for second all-time on the home-run list (at press time, the Giants’ left fielder remained stalled at 713). Hank Aaron is first with 755 home runs.

ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions Mike Ryan said the Bonds saga has increased interest in the sport, but other stories have also helped to enhance viewership. He pointed to the always-heated New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry; the resurgence of teams such as the Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds; and the exploits of Cardinals’ star Albert Pujols, who hit a record 14 home runs in April.

“Obviously, the Barry Bonds story is a huge story,” said Ryan, adding that ESPN is currently providing cutaways from its baseball programming to televise Bonds’ at bats.

“But is that the only reason baseball ratings are up? No. We think that there are other stories outside of Barry Bonds that have compelled people to watch this year.”

Along with the various baseball story lines, Ryan also attributed ESPN’s early ratings success to the network’s ability to deliver some of its national Monday-night telecasts to the teams’ local markets. Last year, the network had to black out its signal in the local markets, but ESPN’s new eight-year, $2.4 billion MLB deal gives the network two opportunities per team to share the TV rights with regional sports networks.

That provision already paid dividends for the network: Its April 17 New York Mets-Atlanta Braves telecast averaged a 1.4 rating, which Ryan said the network would not have achieved if the game was blacked out in those markets.

The new deal also allows the network to show teams a maximum four times on Sunday Night Baseball, up from three last year, according to Ryan.