Almost 55 million watched as Mike Schmidt (photo above) and the 1980s Phillies won Game 6 and wrapped up their first World Series since entering MLB in 1883. Tonight, as the Royals and Giants open the 2014 version, they will be lucky if 15 million viewers tune in to Fox. Here’s why
By Sam Bush
If you think the proliferation of postseason baseball has made the World Series less meaningful over the years, tens of millions of American agree with you
When the Kansas City Royals take the field tonight against the San Francisco Giants to start the 2014 Fall Classic, the numbers of people watching will be a tiny fraction of what the Phils-Royals Series drew 34 years ago.
The 1980 World Series was notable for at least three things. To start, the Phillies won their first World Series. Second, the Royals played in their first one.
And third, together the Phillies and the Royals produced the most-watched game in World Series history: 54.9 million viewers saw Game 6.
Now, as the Royals await their World Series opener against the San Francisco Giants, they should not anticipate 55 million people tuning in, regardless of the interest generated by their 29-year postseason exile and eight consecutive postseason wins this year. Perhaps 15 million will watch. A decade, after all, has passed since the audience topped 20 million.
What has happened in the past 34 years is familiar: Prime-time viewing has eroded on broadcast television for virtually everything but the NFL as the thousand-channel cable universe has lured viewers with options that were unimaginable when the journey around the TV dial involved only three networks and a few local, independent stations.
The 1980 World Series averaged 42.3 million viewers.
Two years later, when the Cardinals played the Milwaukee Brewers in a seven-game series, one game drew 48.9 million viewers and another 49.9 million. In 1985, Game 7 of the Royals-Cardinals series had an audience of 45 million.
The 1980 Series was tightly played through five games, and with the Phillies leading, three games to two, anticipation was high for either the Phillies to clinch or the Royals to survive and force a seventh game.
Three future Hall of Famers were playing: Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and George Brett. Pete Rose, who would become baseball’s career leader in hits in 1985, was the Phillies’ first baseman.
And there was still something special about watching the World Series. The glut of local and national games was years away. There were no interleague games or wild-card playoffs.
The league championship series would remain best-of-five affairs until 1985. Division series were still far off.
And all a viewer needed to know was that NBC and ABC were taking turns broadcasting the LCS and the World Series.
This postseason, more than ever, underscores cable’s dominance. From the wild card to the World Series, TBS, Fox Sports 1, ESPN and MLB Network have each had pieces, requiring a navigation at my home from Channel 8 to 400 to 28 to 306. The only broadcaster involved is Fox. In this shifting sports business landscape, the money that Major League Baseball can amass from selling rights to multiple cable networks trumps the convenience of remote-armed fans — or even their ability to have access to some channels.