The NFL's Assault on Baseball Via Nashville Ratings

Published on: October 25, 2011 | Written by: Clay Travis

I grew up a massive baseball fan. Every morning I devoured the local sports section to read the box scores. Every night I watched my team, the Cincinnati Reds, on our local Nashville Fox affiliate or I'd crank up my dad's ancient radio and listen to the AM broadcast of the Reds' games. I collected baseball cards, played baseball, often watched the Cubs on WGN and the Braves on TBS, followed the Reds' prospects through their Triple A affiliate in Nashville, the Sounds, and stayed up late to watch baseball highlights. Each summer my dad and I would make a pilgrimmage to Cincinnati to watch the Reds play. One year we went to spring training. I was a huge baseball fan and everyone I knew in Nashville was also a huge baseball fan.

Indeed, Nashville residents dreamed of one day having a major league team. 

We had no professional sports teams back in those days and baseball was a tantalizing dream. Back in the early 1990's, when baseball last expanded, Nashville even "sold" 17,000 season tickets as part of an application to join the majors. A local group even selected potential sites for stadiums and did mock-ups of what a stadium would look like. The city was never really in the running for a franchise and when the Marlins and Rockies were added to the national league, local fans returned to rooted for the three largest fan bases in the city: the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and Cincinnati Reds. Each team was around a four hour drive from the city and those of us who were baseball fans made do with a yearly trip or so to see our favorite teams play.

As a fan, I always liked the University of Tennessee more, but Cincinnati Reds baseball was a close second for my passions. I followed the NFL and the NBA, but not as aggressively as I followed college football, college basketball, and baseball. Then came the baseball strike in 1994. I was 15 years old and just getting close to college age. That fall with no baseball playoffs to watch I gave myself over to college football, the NFL, and the NBA. 

Then something strange happened. 

I never came back to baseball.  

It wasn't a conscious decision, or one rooted in anger over the lack of a World Series. I just didn't care about baseball anymore. With baseball gone, I'd realized there were other things better than baseball to occupy my time. Whether it was the faster pace of the other sports, better marketing, more fascinating players, or simply a function of my life getting busier as a teenager and not having the time to keep track of baseball, I'm not sure, all I know is I don't even consider myself a baseball fan at all now. Somewhere along the way, baseball lost me. And it's always been my belief that I wasn't alone. Lots of sports fans in my generation -- the kids who grew up huge baseball fans -- really don't care anymore either.

It's one thing to worry about winning over new fans -- this would be the perpetual struggle of the NHL outside of the Midwest and Northeast -- but it's another thing entirely to lose out on fans who once loved your product.

What filled the sports void left by baseball? The NFL and the NBA. I'd always been fans of both leagues, but once I stopped paying attention to baseball, I paid even more attention to the other sports. The NBA playoffs took over the early part of the baseball season, and the NFL took over the end. In the middle of the summer I was too busy to pay attention to baseball. Where once the NFL had merely been a way to keep tabs on former college stars from the SEC, now it became a focus in its own right. Then, lo and behold, the Houston Oilers franchise relocated to Nashville and became, eventually, the Tennessee Titans. I was away at college in Washington, D.C. as the Titans took over the city, so I followed it from afar, observed the NFL's stealthy march over the city. One winter break I came home to find my mom talking about how much she disliked Baltimore Raven linebacker Ray Lewis.

I don't know if she could have named a single NFL player in 1990.

Nashville has always been a top five market for college football -- indeed, I'd argue based on the number of alums from all 12 SEC schools that Nashville is the de facto capital of the SEC -- but suddenly Nashville was also a major market for the NFL.

And Nashville has become an interesting test case for a hypothesis of mine -- that baseball's declining ratings have almost all been grabbed by the NFL.

Thanks to Mark Binda at our local CBS affiliate I was able to use Nashville as a microcosm of the country to test my hypothesis. The Titans arrived in Tennessee in 1997, playing that first season in front of sparse crowds in Memphis. 1998 was the first year the Titans played in Nashville and it was in 1999 that the Titans downtown stadium opened. Rather than just use the Titans as a measuring stick, Binda provided me with a chart of the average NFL game's rating in Nashville since 1997. (The Titans are included but so is every other broadcast network game). 

Since 1997 NFL ratings have nearly doubled in the city. Each year, on average, more Nashvillians are becoming NFL fans than the year before. This isn't all just the Titans either. Far from it. 1999 was a Titans Super Bowl season and the NFL drew just an 11.7. Last year the Titans were an 6-10 team and the NFL still set an all-time ratings record. (These numbers are even more remarkable if you consider the proliferating number of TV channels from 1997 to 2010. It isn't just that the NFL is growing in the city, it's that the NFL is growing in a time when virtually everyone else is plummeting).  

Now look at Nashville's baseball ratings for the playoffs over the same time period. (Binda pulled the playoff and World Series ratings only for games that aired on broadcast television. No cable games are included). Here are those numbers along with Binda's parenthetical comments of explication:

1997:    13.5

1998:    10.0

1999:    13.3 (Braves-Mets)

2000:    6.8 (Subway Series nobody outside NY cared about)

2001:    10.0

2002:    7.0 

2003:    10.2 (Great LCS in both leagues including the Bartman Game)

2004:    8.9   (The Red Sox miracle did well but dragged down by NLCS and Red Sox sweep in WS)

2005:    5.9    (Chicago White Sox sweep Astros)

2006:    7.3

2007:    6.7

2008:    6.4

2009:    7.1

2010:    5.0  (This was the first time ever not a single game in the LCS or WS cracked a top 10 rating locally)

Saturday's game three of the World Series posted a 5.0 rating locally. That was the second lowest World Series game of all-time in the city.  

What you've got is a local confirmation of my hypothesis: baseball is dying in Nashville and the NFL is the beneficiary of that death.

Nashville used to be a strong market for baseball. If you look at the average age of the fans, Nashville is a micocosm of a larger trend, baseball, once America's past-time, is becoming the new hockey, a regional sport with localized fan bases that don't move the national needle. Baseball will point to record revenues in response to numbers such as these. But that's a fallacy. Technology has allowed baseball to squeeze every last dollar out of its most diehard fans. But the overall fan base isn't growing at all. Which means that eventually those numbers of diehard fans won't be there to exploit.

It's dying off and shrinking. A generation from now baseball will be the new hockey.  

The more sobering fact for baseball: it lost much of my generation to disinterest. The scariest fact? Most members of the current generation don't care about baseball at all. They aren't even going to be there to be lost.