Here’s where the contradiction begins.
(Long before they talked about it on The Sports Reporters.)
How can a sport simultaneously be trailing only the NFL in popularity, yet have the audience of a mud wrestling tournament watching it’s champion being crowned?
Something just ain't right.
Of all of MLB’s problems (the PED cloud hanging over the League, small markets inability to compete, losing superstar players to either suspension, injury or age, no villain to route against, the Yankees not being “the Yankees,” etc.) the one that is the most difficult to quantify is the one the league almost desperately needs to happen come October.
Dodgers/Red Sox. The World Series.
Two instrumental brand recognized franchises that could be the beginning of the answer to the question of when is baseball going to mean something again. (Or at least come close to meaning what baseball used to mean in this country because it will never return to what it used to mean.) That would be the best-case scenario for the sport.
Baseball, more than any other sport right now, could really use two of the biggest cartels in the majors to face off for the last ten days of the season. It could use a World Series with the potential to bring the country together by virtue of creating a bi-coastal buzz, with the ability to galvanize all of the states in-between Massachusetts and California.
Stats don’t lie. In the last five years only two World Series have reached a 10 share in television audience ratings. The average over that five-year span: 9.22. That’s a little above the ratings for the pre-game kickoff show for the 49ers/Seahawks game last month.
Not abysmal or “time to panic” numbers, but not necessarily a trend that a sport that once ruled a nation should find comfort in, rest on or settle for.
More severe than the perception of numbers (ratings, attendance, merchandise, etc.) being collectively inconclusive on whether or not the game needs saving, interest in baseball beyond stat geeks, die-hards and bleeding hearts continues to slide. The Pirates are a feel-good story, the A's are the improbable story every sport loves to have. But if baseball is going to begin to restore itself as one of the sports we can't live without (especially as it continues to lose superstar players to either PED suspension or injury or age), it needs two transcendent franchises to battle in the World Series to begin the process of getting back into the national discussion.
If everyone is honest, we’ll admit that from the “general public interest” vantage point baseball is not where it should be. It’s hovering around what golf will eventually feel like once Tiger Woods retires, what boxing will experience once Floyd Mayweather Jr. quits. Baseball is in that weird holding pattern that all sports (football being the exception) go through when a golden age comes to an end.
Let’s call it Post-Windfall Syndrome.
During the pre-steroid era, during the Sosa/McGuire epoch, during the Yankees neo-dynasty, during Bonds’ chase of 715, MLB seemed to have the nation’s attention on lock. What happened during the regular season seemed to matter. What unfolded during the post-season seemed to matter more. It was in a transcending period that had non-baseball fans caring about what was going on in the game.
But the fallout hasn’t been pretty. Like the NBA when Michael Jordan stopped winning championships. Even though it took almost a decade (Jordan’s second retirement from the Bulls in 1998 followed by the 1998-99 season strike are often looked at as when the official decline began) for the NBA to return, it was the meeting of their two marquee organizations in the Finals that ignited the league’s comeback.
The 2008 the LA Lakers v. Boston Celtics (same cities that are the subjects here) meeting in the NBA Finals began the rejuvenation of the all so important “general public interest.” Which coincided with the upsurge of the television audience. The 9.3 rating that series generated was a 50% increase over the 2007 NBA Finals featuring LeBron James verses the San Antonio Spurs.
Two years later when the L’s and C’s met again in the Finals, that series produced a 14% increase from the 2008 series, with a Game 7 that pulled a 15.6 rating, accounting for almost 30 million viewers. The NBA has not looked back.
Baseball – not literally, but seriously – would go Walter White (kill) for those type of numbers. MLB would benefit from those ratings in ways that can’t be equaled by anything else with the exception of Bonds coming back.
But this is beyond a numbers game. This is more about passion than anything. Because television ratings are fractional in determining a sports’ popularity, the “general interest quotient” is where the main concern here lies.
(Example: Although “Scandal” was not one of the Top 25 most watched shows in America last season, it took the country by tsunami, not by storm. It was/is the most talked about network series and the one show that seemed to capture the fascination of every person/family that doesn’t own a Nielsen box and isn’t a part of Nielsen’s rating system.)
Baseball needs a “Scandal,” not a scandal. It needs something to happen that is going to generated an unforeseen wave of passion and engagement from non-baseball insiders and cats that rock New Eras as fashion statements.
Baseball needs that jump-off moment. The only thing that would be as close to a guarantee of anything like that happening is if the Dodgers and Red Sox were to meet in this year’s World Series.
The story lines alone. Yasiel Puig v. Big Papi by themselves would create an almost epic across-all-sports interest that would translate into ratings and “more important than NFL” news feeds. On the mound: Lester and Lackey v. Kershaw and Greinke. The post-Theo Epstein v. post-Frank McCourt eras. Magic Johnson’s Dodger ownership. Matt Kemp’s swag v. Dustin Pedroia’s grime. Rosters full of stars (Jacoby Ellsbury, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli for Boston; Hanley Ramirez, Andre Either, Carl Crawford for the Dodgers) on both sides battling for the Commissioner’s Trophy.
And so much more.
The only thing that would have been better would have been if the Yankees were to make it and play and beat the Red Sox in the ALCS and then play the Dodgers in the WS and the nation could watch Mariano Rivera – and Derek Jeter, even though he’s done for the season – play their last games in pinstripes come October.
But since that has zero chance of happening and miracles in sports don’t exist, we’ll have to supplicate for a BSox/LAD series since this is the first time (even though in 2009, 2008 and 2004 both teams made the post-season) in a while there’s been a realistic possibility – with Boston having the best record and LA having the largest divisional lead in MLB – of this series actually happening.
It’s a franchise thing. It’s a geographical thing. It’s a big market thing. It’s a money thing. It’s how audiences are rebuilt and what makes them return. It’s what creates public interest and media attention. It’s big business.
It’s the thing that could bring a general and national interest back to professional baseball and ignite the passion that seems to have disappeared with all of the public struggles that the game has gone and put itself through.