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The False Lure of Parity

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I’m sure you’ve heard about this … the New Orleans Saints and Pittsburgh Steelers went head to head with Game 4 of the World Series, and outdrew it by 2.6 million viewers. As has been pointed out (and how), this was the first time in history a regular season NFL game had more viewers than a World Series game. Never mind that they don’t go head to head that often, and when they have recently the football game has been on cable, and probably with a fair amount of Tony Kornheiser involved – certainly all elements that aided the baseball side of this particular competition.

But this year finally broke that barrier, one that has lead to handwringing and snark as only the Internet brings to a topic. It is certain that a disappointing number of people watched the World Series. And while television analysts (and football pundits desperate to feel superior) seem shocked and amused, advertisers weren’t – they groaned as soon as the matchup was decided. No one cares about these teams, or at least not enough of them to make a television impact.

We’ve been told for years that baseball has a serious image problem. Titles of the game’s most famous books tell you about how unfair it is, in 32 point blood red font. Your friends say they won’t watch baseball until there is some semblance of competitive balance, and a divisional standing that doesn’t rely entirely on the size of each franchise’s checkbook.

It’s worth noting that they are completely full of gas. They have been given parity (at least at the championship level) and rejected it, in this case for two NFL franchises fresh off recent championships. Most viewers declined the underdogs and chose the elite.

Since 2000, the World Series ordered by television ratings (high to low):

1. Red Sox d. Cardinals 2004 (The Red Sox trying to shake the apparently century long effect of some undeniably silly made-up voodoo thing)

2. Diamondbacks d. Yankees 2001 (temporarily reprieved Evil Empire given the task of restoring national innocence, fails I guess)

3. Marlins d. Yankees 2003 (team that never won the division wins their second World Series, confusing old people)

4. Yankees d. Mets 2000 (The Subway Series, insufferable rich kids with reduced travel costs)

5. Angels d. Giants 2002 (Barry Bonds defeated by Rally Primate in 7, lousy west coast start times)

6. Yankees d. Phillies 2009

7. Red Sox d. Rockies 2007

8. White Sox d. Astros 2005 (Podsednik homers, world ends, Brad Lidge’s spirit crushed somehow)

9. Cardinals d. Tigers 2006 (undeserving, lucky champions capitalize on bad baseball)

 10. Giants d. Rangers 2010

 11. Phillies d. Rays 2008 (unmistakable underdog story hindered by rain delay and 200 hour deciding game, approximately)

The four most disappointing audiences (outside elements as noted aside) involved 8 different teams. Prior to their appearance in that series, they ranged from having never won a championship (3 of them) to having won as recently as 1982 (the Cardinals). If that isn’t parity, what is? Those teams reflect a quarter of the entire league, with nary a New York or Boston to be found.

So if as a fan you believe that baseball is doomed without revenue sharing or a salary cap (I am not one of you), that the Yankees and Red Sox are killing the sport, well, it looks like a good percentage of you may not be putting the metaphorical money in the proverbial mouth. Want things to change in baseball? Watch a Rangers-Giants World Series. Until then, let’s lay off the sanctimony.