In March, 2020 was shaping up as a key year for the Cardinals and Fox Sports Midwest, which were about to enter the third season of a 15-year deal that’s worth more than $1 billion and includes the club having a stake in the network. That's before the coronavirus-caused delay of the season threw everything into flux.
Last year, despite the team finishing 20 games over .500 and winning its division, the Cardinals drew their worst TV ratings for their locally-produced telecasts in two decades. And that continued a sharp decline of recent seasons. Nielsen, which measures viewership, reports that 6.6% of the market tuned in to the telecasts on Fox Sports Midwest. The year before the rating was 7.3. In 2015, it was 10.0. So last year the team and FSM lost more than a third of the TV audience it had four seasons earlier.
The ratings drop wasn't limited to the regular season. The Cards' appearance in the first round of the playoffs drew the lowest rating of their last seven trips to the divisional round. Then they had their worst ratings performance, by far, in the 10 National League Championship Series in which the team has played in this century.
There was an extenuating circumstance last year, as the Blues' improbable run undoubtedly pulled viewers away from baseball, especially from mid-May through mid-June. And the Cards were swept in the NLCS. But overall, the significant decline is a sign of the times in this era in which many people have dropped cable television in favor of lower-cost video-content options. Viewership becomes splintered and has declined for most television outlets.
Even with the comparatively low regular-season rating last year, FSM's Cards telecasts were the top-rated among all U.S.-based MLB teams, continuing a long trend of the Cards being at or near the top.
"We still feel very good that our TV and radio ratings are among the highest in baseball," Cardinals senior vice president Dan Farrell said, pointing out that Cards games usually are the No. 1-rated prime time show on St. Louis television on nights they play.
Still, it is a concerning sign when viewership plummets to the extent it has.
With the Cardinals' season now set to start Friday, and limited to 60 games, any ratings comparison to recent years will be skewed. Will fans be so starved for baseball that viewership soars? Or will they have become accustomed to a spring and summer without the Cardinals, therefore just tune in on occasion? More importantly, will they be so angered by weeks of the owners and players haggling over money that they stay away?
Adding to the equation is that there will be no fans in the ballpark, at least early on, leading to a studio-like setting. Quirky rules will be implemented, and some key players across MLB have opted out of playing.
Will people watch out of curiosity? Or will they consider it a gimmicky season not worth a lot of their time?
The track record since sports started returning a few weeks ago has been positive, as viewership for events such as golf, auto racing, the NFL draft and even some documentaries has been strong — some at record levels.
“We’re optimistic," Fox Sports Midwest general manager Jack Donovan said. "There’s pent-up demand for sports. But we can’t be sure, because there’s no precedent for what we’re experiencing.”
Farrell, the Cardinals executive, said he wouldn't be surprised by a 30% ratings increase.
And Tom Mee, director of FSM's Cards telecast, is bullish.
"I don’t care if there are fans in the stands, these ratings are going to blow up,” he has said. "I can’t wait for baseball to get started. People need it."
The write stuff
Of all the people covering sports, the safety protocols put in place because of he coronavirus pandemic might affect baseball beat writers the most.
A key element of successfully covering a team on a daily basis, from February until sometimes through October, is developing personal relationships and mutual trust with members of the team. This leads to stories that others do not get, in-depth knowledge of the inner workings of the organization and the personalities of those involved that are key in providing in-depth coverage.
These relationships are cultivated behind the scenes, so lack of locker room access and mass interviews conducted electronically can hamper this effort, as necessary as the precautions are.
Post-Dispatch Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold is such affected, and is approaching the unprecedented circumstance more as an adventure than a roadblock.
"I embrace it as a challenge," he said. "It's up to me to adjust."
He said in some ways it's no different from working around "normal" obstacles, such as an interview request being denied or a phone call not being returned.
"I just have to find a way to do the job differently," he said. "How do I get this exclusive story? You put an emphasis on what you observe. . . . It's just a different way to try to provide the same depth of coverage."
He pointed out that he and his colleagues "have found a way to cover sports without games," with a variety of analytical and "where are they now" type stories filling the gap before summer camp began.
But there remains that limited-access challenge now that baseball is poised to return.
"How do you give complete, immersive coverage of a sport from an arm's distance?" he asked. "That's the challenge."
Goold, who was on a committee that helped draft those safety rules across MLB, added that the protocols now in place are subject to easing if the pandemic subsides.
"I'm really respectful of what everybody is doing," Goold said. "The responsibility is on us."
Non-Cardinals MLB games scheduled to be televised in the St. Louis market in the early part of the season (more MLB Network games to be added):
6:05 p.m.: Yankees at Nationals, ESPN
9:05 p.m: Giants at Dodgers, ESPN
3:10 p.m.: Braves at Mets, ESPN
5:10 p.m.: Tigers at Reds, MLBN
6:10 p.m.: Brewers at Cubs, ESPN
8:10 p.m.: Mariners at Astros, MLBN
9:10 p.m.: Angels at Athletics, ESPN
12:05 p.m.: Brewers at Cubs, KTVI (2)
3:10 p.m.: Giants at Dodgers, KTVI (2)
6:15 p.m.: Yankees at Nationals, KTVI (2)
9:10 p.m.: Diamondbacks at Padres, FS1
SUNDAY, JULY 26
12:05 p.m.: Yankees at Nationals, TBS
3:10 p.m: Angels at Athletics, MLBN
6:05 p.m.: Braves at Mets, ESPN
9:05 p.m.: Giants at Dodgers, ESPN
THURSDAY, JULY 30
6:15 p.m.: Red Sox at Mets or Indians at Twins, KTVI (2)
SATURDAY, AUG. 1
6:15 p.m.: Red Sox at Yankees or Astros at Angels, KTVI (2)
SUNDAY, AUG. 2
6:05 p.m.: Red Sox at Yankees, ESPN
In this Series
- 13 updates