Tale of the Tape: NBA vs. MLB (Part II)


In the wake of yet another record-low World Series, here is a look at how Major League Baseball stacks up as a national television draw against the National Basketball Association.

While it is universally acknowledged that baseball is well behind the National Football League as a national TV draw (as is the case for all sports, and indeed all television programs), the better question is whether America’s pastime has ceded second place to the once-moribund NBA.

Over the past five years, national television ratings for the NBA have — with few exceptions — consistently finished above those of Major League Baseball in the regular season and the playoffs.

Regular Season
* Chart displays average regular season ratings for the NBA and MLB on broadcast over the past decade.

For five consecutive seasons, the NBA regular season on broadcast (ABC) has outdrawn the MLB regular season on broadcast (FOX). In 2012, the NBA regular season on ABC nearly doubled the MLB regular season on FOX (3.3 to 1.7), the largest percentage gap between the two leagues since 1997.

Comparisons on cable are more difficult, as MLB telecasts on ESPN and TBS are hamstrung by blackouts. Still, the NBA on ESPN has topped baseball on ESPN in each of the past four seasons, and the NBA on TNT has unsurprisingly beaten MLB on TBS each year since Turner acquired baseball TV rights.

Playoffs (Early Rounds)
Baseball and the NBA are closest when it comes to the early rounds of the playoffs. Even so, the NBA has taken the lead over the past two years.

Not including the NBA Finals or World Series, the 2012 NBA Playoffs averaged 5.3 million viewers compared to 4.4 million for the 2012 MLB Postseason. A major caveat here is that the MLB average includes two games on MLB Network, but the NBA average does not include games on NBA TV. With that said, the NBA also led in 2011 (5.4M to 4.9M), when there were no playoff games on MLB Network.

Just two years ago, however, baseball had the decisive lead. While official averages were not available, the 2010 MLB Postseason averaged approximately 6.3 million viewers prior to the World Series, compared to approximately 4.4 million for the NBA Playoffs prior to the NBA Finals.

Playoffs (Championship Round)
* Chart displays average household ratings for the NBA Finals and World Series over the past decade.

The NBA may have a fragile lead over baseball in the early rounds of the postseason, but the league has been comfortably ahead as of late when it comes to the battle between the NBA Finals and the World Series.

In household ratings and average viewership, the NBA Finals has outdrawn the World Series an unprecedented four times in the past five seasons. Only three times previously had the NBA come out ahead of the Fall Classic — 1993, 1996 and 1998.

In 2012, the Thunder/Heat NBA Finals outdrew the Giants/Tigers World Series by a third in ratings (10.1 to 7.6) and viewership (16.9M to 12.7M).

* Chart displays average adults 18-49 ratings for the NBA Finals and World Series over the past decade.

Among adults 18-49, the NBA has come out ahead in five of the past seven seasons. In 2012, the NBA Finals’ 7.1 average in the demo topped the World Series (3.7) by 92%.

Concluding Thoughts
Nearly all of the data points to the NBA having a strong lead over Major League Baseball when it comes to national television ratings (this analysis is not focused on attendance, local television ratings, or overall revenue — all areas in which MLB leads).

The question then becomes why. Has baseball lost appeal with younger viewers? Has NFL competition made it difficult for baseball to attract big numbers? Those factors — especially the latter — certainly play a role. However, the primary cause may be simpler.

Over the past five years, the NBA has had the benefit of marquee teams and stars contending each year. Yes, LeBron James made the NBA Finals in 2007, and ratings were terrible. But that was James’ first year out of the first round — and on a Cavaliers team that was frankly mediocre. It is easy to forget, but not too long ago the Spurs were winning titles every other year, the Lakers were a seventh seed at best, and other big market teams such as the Celtics, Bulls and Knicks were either in the lottery or knocked out early.

Since 2007, the Celtics and Lakers have become perennial contenders, young players such as Derrick Rose and Kevin Durant have burst onto the scene, and James transformed into a star who could move the needle — and later, a villain so feverishly demonized that people tuned in to watch him lose.

By contrast, baseball has lacked the star-power and story-lines of the NBA. MLB was a formidable national TV draw in the early 2000s, when the Yankees and Red Sox met in back-to-back ALCS and the Cubs nearly made the World Series^. In the years since, baseball has still done well when the Yankees have been in contention (the 2009 World Series averaged a higher rating than any NBA Finals in eleven years). The Yankees, however, have been to only one World Series in the past nine seasons.

Instead of the Yankees — or the Red Sox — baseball has had somewhat anonymous teams arrive in the World Series without having attracted a great deal of attention during the regular season. In some years, this can be overcome by good games. In 2011, the Cardinals/Rangers World Series earned strong numbers after going to a sixth and seventh game. In most years, however, the World Series has been quick and drama-free, and the ratings have been among the worst ever.

So is the NBA currently ahead of Major League Baseball as a national television draw? There can be no doubt.

However, the NBA’s lead is predicated on circumstances that could easily change within the next few years. Should the Yankees or Red Sox begin winning championships again — or at least make the World Series — baseball’s fortunes will almost certainly rise. As for the NBA, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James have played in every NBA Finals for the past six seasons. One imagines that stretch of good luck will eventually come to an end.

^ How strong a draw was Major League Baseball in the early 2000s? Three LCS Game 7s — Red Sox/Yankees Game 7 in 2003, Marlins/Cubs Game 7 in 2003, and Red Sox/Yankees Game 7 in 2004 — each drew more viewers than Game 7 of last year’s Rangers/Cardinals World Series

(2012 and 2011 MLB postseason averages from Sports Business Daily; 2012 and 2011 NBA playoff averages from Sports Business Journal)

  • kobe sandoval

    Interesting read. A couple things to consider that you didn’t mention though; baseball plays far fewer playoff games, so high rated LCS and wild card games have a bigger impact on the total average. Also, one LCS is on broadcast TV every year (Fox), while both NBA Conference Finals are on cable. 

    • Paulsen

       Good points.

    • Jeffrey

      One other comparison point that rarely gets brought up: Baseball has to compete not only against pro and college football, but first-run tv series, both broadcast and cable. The NBA postseason is for the most airing against re-runs. However, it is easier to get people in front of the television in October than it is in May and June. I agree with Rich. Baseball needs to find a way, any way, to cultivate and promote their stars and make viewers, particularly younger viewers, care about them enough to watch. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Buster Posey, and other young stars would be household names if they played in the NFL or NBA. But the reality is only hometown fans know these talented players intimately. I will also say pace of game is a huge concern. It is. Not time of game, pace of game. I will watch a three-hour-plus game on TV if the pace is strong. But when the game grinds to a halt, with pitchers and batters casually going about their jobs, and with so many deep counts, I can totally see how a younger fan ditches the game and heads off to some other entertainment. I would do the same thing if I didn’t love the game so much. I am 46 years old, by the way, and I am guessing I am at the typical age of a MLB fan.

  • danny

    also it should be noted that mlb post season national broadcasts – all the games – has total exclusivity, while all nba playoff games until the conference finals (except for the ABC games) are broadcast both nationally and locally, and those local numbers on local broadcast networks are not included in the total rating.

    • http://twitter.com/NYCKING BIG ED

      it use to be till conference final.  after 1st round all games exclusive national broadcast.

    • http://twitter.com/NYCKING BIG ED

      it use to be till conference finals.  Now after 1st round all games exclusively national broadcast.

  • Rich S.

    Interesting reading the 2009 article compared to the 2012 counterpart. Shows how quickly things can change. In 3 years, the NBA has clearly surpassed MLB in most national TV metrics. Considering the likely dominance of the Lakers, Heat and Thunder over the next few seasons, I can’t see the balance changing back for a while. And although everything is indeed cyclical, it’s no secret that baseball is struggling majorly with younger audiences. Without finding a way to recapture that, I wouldn’t be surprised to see baseball in a struggle with soccer and hockey rather than basketball in the next generation.

  • Laurence Davies

    Can’t help to think MLB is gradually heading towards NHL territory, in that the strength of the sport is more on a local basis (albeit for the NHL  on a spotty basis).  The other similarity is the play-off system don’t lend themselves necessarily for the most talented teams to advance (thus the faceless team in the finals issue), i.e. they’re the two sports most prone to upsets, for different reasons,   NHL because desire over talent wins out in the play-offs, MLB, well there’s a reason you play 162 games.

  • http://twitter.com/Real2KInsider Rashidi

    I would imagine the steroids debacle has badly damaged MLB in the eyes of many fans. I know that I stopped watching around the time the Mitchell Report came out.