The Rolling Stones released a new album last Friday. Entitled “Hackney Diamonds,” it’s catchy, familiar, better than it has any right to be … and almost no one under age 45 is going to hear it in any way other than in luxury car and stool softener commercials. “Hackney Diamonds” will make exactly zero impact in advertisers’ beloved, key youth demographics.
In not-completely-unrelated news, the World Series begins tonight. Like the Rolling Stones, baseball has been around for more than a century, a longtime favorite of older generations that is struggling to connect with younger ones. This year’s version features Rangers versus Diamondbacks, the same matchup we see in the opening scene of every spaghetti Western. And if you listen to the prevailing wisdom, it’s going to be a ratings disaster!!!
I don’t know when, as sports fans, our now-omnipresent fascination with ratings began. I don’t remember people griping about the ratings when, say, the worst-to-first Braves and Twins played in 1991 or the Buffalo Bills played in their fourth straight Super Bowl or the Chicago Bulls played in six of eight NBA Finals. But now, as if we’re all TV execs worried about ad dollars, every postseason matchup gets filtered through a lens of ratings viability. Big teams and big stars: good! Small-market teams and unknown players: bad!
Ridiculous. Maybe this fascination with ratings has arisen because we’re living in a particularly argumentative era, and fans swing ratings as a cudgel to pound home whatever larger point they’re trying to make (“Look at the ratings for Sport X after they turned political!”).
But here’s the truth: You don’t have to care about ratings.
Not even a little bit. (Unless you’re a league, advertising or broadcast executive, in which case you probably should care about them a lot.) All that matters is whether you, as a fan, enjoy what you’re watching. What other people see — or skip — should have no impact on your own experience, and we recommend you banish it from your sporting thought process entirely.
Now, granted, ratings can have a significant impact on where you watch the games. If baseball still drew 44 million viewers per game, the way it did back in the ‘70s, you wouldn’t have to hunt all over cable and streaming services for it. (For comparison’s sake, the best NFL game of the week in 2023 generally draws around 28 million viewers.) But for the foreseeable future, ratings will have no impact on whether you can watch the game. There’s no danger of the World Series going unaired.
Which is a good thing, because this year’s World Series is going to feature a whole bunch of unfamiliar players and unfamiliar stories. (Here’s our breakdown of how each team got here and a rundown of 11 figures you need to know.) But isn’t that what makes sports great — finding new heroes and new narratives? Did you really need to hear anything more about the Dodgers or Astros or Braves?
Now, if you want a good topic of conversation about these two teams, try this: The Rangers and Diamondbacks had a combined .537 regular-season winning percentage. According to OptaStats, that’s the lowest winning percentage by the two final teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB in more than 30 years; the 1991 Stanley Cup Final between the Penguins and North Stars matched teams with a combined winning percentage of .488.
Just 12 years ago, in 2011, the fifth-seeded Rangers wouldn’t have been in the playoffs. As recently as 2019, the sixth-seeded Diamondbacks would have been watching from their snake hole. Are 12 playoff teams too many? Does the quick-strike MLB playoff format unfairly penalize regular-season winners? Those are much more interesting conversations than whether the World Series will draw decent ratings.
Look, when it comes to the World Series — or any postseason matchup — you can’t always get what you want. But sometimes, you get what you need.
(Hey, that’s a pretty good line. Someone should use that in a song.)