Why MLB TV Ratings Are Hot While the NFL’s Ratings Tank

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26: Roberto Perez #55 of the Cleveland Indians throws the ball after forcing out Willson Contreras #40 of the Chicago Cubs at home plate during the seventh inning in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Major League Baseball can thank the Cubs and Indians for the 2016 postseason’s high TV ratings | Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

What is the average TV viewer looking for in a World Series? Whatever it was about this year’s matchup between the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs, Americans couldn’t get enough of it. MLB TV ratings were off the charts throughout the Fall Classic.

According to Hollywood Reporter, not since the Yankees tangled with the Phillies in 2009 have so many viewers tuned in for postseason baseball. Nearly 20 million viewers saw Game 1 of the Series — a jump of 20% over 2015 — and the same percentage increase held for Game 2. The Indians and Cubs gave fans and interested parties alike the hope of drought-ending celebration at the end of the series — and they got it.

Meanwhile, the NFL continues to receive bad news about ratings. During the first two months of the campaign, viewership declined steadily, with national broadcasts down as much as 24% compared to last season. What’s behind the tale of two sports leagues in 2016? We’ll start with baseball’s success.

The Chicago Cubs draw

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26: Jake Arrieta of Chicago Cubs walks off the field after the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jake Arrieta helped Chicago advance all the way through Game 7 of the World Series | Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Unless you go out of your way to ignore the Cubs, you probably know that, until 2016, the franchise’s last World Series win was 108 years ago. Not that Chicago’s been toiling away with a small-market payroll or anything, mind you. In fact, the Cubs have been favorites to go the distance in postseasons past, but bad luck and outright choking got in the way at various points of the previous century.

Regardless, the Windy City is beyond amped for its beloved team in 2016. When the Cubs tried to clinch the NLCS against the Dodgers, Chicago watched the Cubs instead of the Bears by a two-to-one margin. Granted, the Bears aren’t much to watch, but the Cubs (then up 3-1) could have clinched in any of the next three games. (Chicago advanced after a Game 6 win.) To get this result, many White Sox fans and other folks in town had to ignore the NFL game, too.

The Cleveland effect

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 26: Anthony Rizzo #44 of the Chicago Cubs runs on his way to scoring after Ben Zobrist #18 (not pictured) hit an RBI triple during the fifth inning against the Cleveland Indians in Game Two of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 26, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.
Indians fans were even more enthusiastic than those in the Windy City | Jason Miller/Getty Images

Compared to, say, any other time in the last 70 years, Cleveland residents’ optimism about hometown sports is at an all-time high. Watching the Cavaliers topple the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals delivered a major shot of life to the depressed fan base. A sweep of the Boston Red Sox and dismantling of the Toronto Blue Jays in the ALCS apparently convinced Indians fans that this year may include a World Series win, too.

MLB TV ratings showed that Cleveland fans watched in force. For Game 1 of the Series, Hollywood Reporter noted an impressive 46.5 rating compared to a 34.1 rating among Chicagoland fans. Even with the tremendous hype that surrounded the Cubs’ return to the Fall Classic, Indians fans were more excited. Non-partisan baseball fans found a big draw here, too. MLB could not have hoped for a better World Series matchup. It might not be the love-’em-or-hate-’em Yankees, but these two clubs demanded attention.

NFL ratings woes

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The 2016 election, poor quality of play, and bad league optics hurt NFL ratings this season | Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Where do we start? Sports Cheat Sheet’s Jimmie Kaylor described a perfect storm bringing NFL ratings down in 2016. Monday Night Football and Sunday night contests declined the most of any games, which we can blame on the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump to an extent. Viewers turned to politics on Sundays in general this September and October, hinting that this election battle was more interesting than the opening weeks of the NFL season. (No argument from us there.)

Yet the story is larger. Peyton Manning is in the news now for roasting Rob Lowe rather than throwing touchdown passes. Meanwhile, his old rival Tom Brady sat out the first month of the season for something about a lack of air in his balls. So games haven’t been as good, either. Elsewhere, folks who object to those Colin Kaepernick protests said in a Seton Hall poll they’ve boycotted the NFL for that reason. Still others say the league’s poor handling of domestic violence cases soured them on the sport.

The same poll had two in five respondents say they’ve ignored the NFL early in 2016 for another reason: Postseason baseball has been more interesting. We accept the jury’s verdict without hesitation.

Follow Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY