Baseball’s Out of the Park

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

Fox rode last week’s miraculous comeback by the Boston Red Sox to ratings heaven and is looking at a World Series that could be even more lucrative.

“If it goes to at least six games, I think we’ll be looking at the highest-rated World Series in the last five years,” said Sam Sussman, who handles sports negotiations as VP, media director, for media buying giant Starcom USA. But even if the Red Sox, a supposedly cursed franchise that hasn’t won a world championship since 1918, fall behind early to the St. Louis Cardinals, he predicts the 2004 Series will top last year’s, which averaged a 12.8 Nielsen Media Research household rating as the Florida Marlins beat the New York Yankees.

With two seven-game series, which included three extra-inning games, Fox was able to maximize its revenues during the two league championships last week.

“We like baseball. We like extra-inning games and we like seven-game series,” said Jon Nesvig, president of ad sales for Fox Broadcasting.

With anything other than a sweep in the World Series, Fox will have a successful baseball postseason. One industry observer said that with 14 league championship games played, a fifth World Series game will push Fox above its revenue plan for the postseason.

Of course, profit and loss in sports is a complicated equation. Fox paid $2.5 billion for a six-year deal for baseball rights beginning in 2001. Then News Corp. took a write-down for its sports rights in 2002, including $225 million for baseball.

“Profitability? You talk to the accountants,” Mr. Nesvig said. “But versus our business plan, we are smiling. The fact that we got seven games in both championship series means that baseball is going to be very successful.”

News Corp. has been making money from the stations it owns in Boston, St. Louis, New York and Atlanta, the home cities of four of the teams that made the baseball playoffs.

For the league championship series, Fox was selling 30-second ads for $175,000 to $200,000. As the series heated up, prices rose to about $250,000 for the last few games, Mr. Nesvig said. The extra games were a bonanza, as were the extra innings. Fox gets 90 seconds of ads between innings.

Those extra games and extra innings were particularly big in the New York-Boston series. Overall, the LCS on Fox averaged an 11.1 rating in prime time through Wednesday night, little changed from last year, when the playoff run by the surprising Chicago Cubs (another team that hasn’t won a championship since before the Great Depression) boosted the ratings for the National League games.

But Game 7, in which the Red Sox whipped the Yankees, was the highest-rated baseball game since 1991, drawing a 19.4 rating, a 30 share and 31.5 million viewers. The game was the highest-rated show so far this season among households, adults 18 to 49 and adults 18 to 34 and the second-highest-rated show of the year, behind only the Super Bowl, including beating NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

Those numbers were a boon for Fox, which has had little else working for it so far this season.

Since the games exceeded their ratings guarantees, “It really helps us out with any prime issues that we have,” Mr. Nesvig said. “The baseball [advertisers] were taken care of, so anything you were holding there for underdelivery becomes available elsewhere. We’ve been maximizing our baseball inventory for the good of the company.”

Mr. Nesvig said Fox is effectively sold out for the first five games of the World Series, with spots selling for $350,000, up from $300,000 to $325,000 last season.

“Based on what I’ve heard, Fox was well sold before the matchup,” said Mr. Sussman of Starcom. “Sometimes there’s opportunistic money” that comes into the World Series at the last minute, he added.

Mr. Nesvig said he’s got about 15 percent, or about 10 to 12 units per game, of Games 6 and 7 of the Series still available.

He expects some advertisers to wait and see how the Series goes-and to see whether Fox will lower its prices-before buying in. “We hold the price up and you usually have [spots in] Game 6 or 7 available until fairly late in the process.”

Mr. Nesvig expected viewers to be very interested in the Series and rooted for the Red Sox to beat the Yankees in the American League Championship Series. “I think Boston is such a compelling story that you’re going to bring along more viewers,” he said.

“I don’t think Fox loses anything with the Yankees not being there,” Mr. Sussman said. “If you’ve seen any of the ratings in Boston, Hartford and Providence, combine that with the curse, I think that will more than offset losing the top market in New York. Plus, the Yankees have been there six of the past eight years.”

Curse of the Bambino

According to baseball lore, the Red Sox have been cursed for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920. Mr. Ruth went on to be a star, while Red Sox fans suffered. In the past few years the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry has heated up, with the Yankees knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs in dramatic fashion several times, including last year.

Mr. Sussman thought that the Houston Astros might have drawn more viewers than the Cardinals because some of their players have interesting stories. That would have included former Red Sox hurler Roger Clemens, who would have had an opportunity to keep the curse alive by beating his old team in one of the later games in the Series in historic Fenway Park.

But the Cardinals had the best record in baseball and are a storied franchise in a city that many experts consider the best baseball market in the country. The team also has a strong following in much of the Midwest.