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Cardinals swept by Nationals in NLCS

(From left) Matt Wieters, Harrison Bader, Cardinals hitting coach Jeff Albert and Paul Goldschmidt watch as Matt Carpenter grounds out with the bases loaded in the eighth inning of NLCS Game 4 against the Washington Nationals. Robert Cohen photo, rcohen@post-dispatch.com

The Cardinals’ television ratings for the National League Championship Series were almost as bad as their hitting.

It’s not a big surprise that the Nielsen figures were not good, given the team was swept and had more than three times as many strikeouts (48) as hits (15). But what is eye-opening is the magnitude of the drop compared to the Cardinals’ other NLCS appearances in the last two decades. What has evolved is a trend of significantly falling television ratings for the team.

The bottom has hit this year. The Cardinals had a 20-year low in regular-season ratings for their local TV package (Fox Sports Midwest). Then the club’s appearance in the first round of the playoffs drew the lowest rating of the Cardinals’ last seven trips to the divisional round. That was followed by their worst ratings performance, by far, in the 10 National League Championship Series in which the team has played in this century.

Before this year, the worst NLCS rating came in 2002, when the Giants rolled over the Cardinals in five games. Nielsen, which tracks viewership, said those contests were seen in an average of 29.6% of homes in the St. Louis market. But that was huge compared to the rating this year — 17.0.

How bad was it this time?

• The opener was the lowest-rated Game 1 of the Cards’ 10 NLCS trips in this century. The rating: 15.4. Previous low: 24.1, in 2014.

• The second contest was the lowest-rated Game 2 in that span. The rating: 14.1. Previous low: 22.9, in 2011.

• The third contest was the lowest-rated Game 3 in that span. The rating: 13.6. Previous low: 19.3, in 2014.

• The fourth contest was the lowest-rated Game 4 in that span. The rating: 11.6. Previous low: 24.3, in 2014.

So all four games comparably were the worst-rated Cards NLCS contests in this century.

NLCS, BY THE NUMBERS

Television ratings in St. Louis and Washington for this year’s National League Championship Series, which was shown by TBS. (The rating is the percentage of the market tuned in, as tabulated by Nielsen):

Game St. Louis Washington
1. 21.9 9.8
2. 16.4 8.7
3. 15.3 11.3
4. 14.5 14.8
Average 17.0 11.2

Looking for answers

A few explanations have been offered. Among them is that Game 1 was on a Friday night, when TV use in general is low. Game 2 was on a Saturday afternoon, when there is competition from college football and people might have other activities that keep them from watching. By Game 3 the Cards were in a big hole and some fans were waiting for them to get back into the series before watching. There also is the trend of fewer people watching TV now in general than 10 years ago. Maybe the cat got out of the house and everybody went to find it. Etc., etc., etc.

But those things weren’t major factors earlier in this century, when Cardinals postseason games were appointment viewing.

In 2002, when the Cards lost the first two games to the Giants, Game 3 was played on a Saturday night (traditionally TV’s least-watched night of the week) and that game had a 24.5 rating. This year, with the Cards trailing 2-0, Game 3 was played on a Monday night (one of the strongest TV-watching nights). It drew a paltry 15.3 rating — the worst figure to that point for any of the Cardinals’ 56 previous postseason games in this century. That dubious record did not last long. Game 4, in which the Cardinals fell behind 7-0 in the first inning before staging a rally to make a game of it, clunked in at 14.5.

In a nutshell, three of the Cards’ four worst-rated postseason games in the 2000s, out of what now is a total of 58, came in this series. The only one to beat a rating from those previous seasons was Game 1. Its figure, 21.9, surpassed the 19.3 rating for Game 3 in 2014. The Giants won that series in five games.

There’s more.

For the team’s first seven trips to the NLCS in this century, only one averaged below a 30 rating for the series as a whole — the 2002 loss in five games to the Giants was at 29.6. But none of the Cardinals’ last three NLCS appearances reached 30. The Redbirds’ victory in six games over the Dodgers in 2013 was at 28.9; their loss in five to the Giants in 2014 was at 23.5. That was followed by the 17.0 bottoming out this season.

Perhaps the most logical explanation is that the game has changed dramatically in recent years, with an emphasis on defensive shifts as well as a huge uptick in strikeouts and home runs. That leads to less action on the base paths and a longer, more dull product that is dragged down by many pitching changes, hitters stepping out of the box and pitchers in no hurry to pitch.

Staying optimistic

The entity affected most by ratings is Fox Sports Midwest, which just completed its second season of a 15-year deal worth more than $1 billion that includes the telecasts. Jack Donovan, FSM’s general manager, remains positive.

It’s not all gloom and doom. The Cardinals had the best regular-season rating for local telecasts among U.S.-based MLB teams, and those productions usually were the top-rated program of the day on St. Louis television. For the NLCS, St. Louis outdistanced Washington for the first three games and barely was out-rated for Game 4 despite the fact the Nationals were en route to the World Series for the first time.

Also, the Cardinals out-rated the Blues for the comparable round of the playoffs this year for comparable games. The first four games of the Blues-Sharks Western Conference finals series averaged a 13.7 rating, and the average for all six games was 15.3. Both were below the Cards’ NLCS figure of 17.0.

“The Cardinals are and will continue to be a ratings giant,” Donovan said. “Cardinals ratings were 44% higher than the No. 2 channel in prime time, and the Cardinals’ fan support — as reflected in attendance and viewership — is more consistent than any other team in baseball.

“May and June were the two lowest-rated months of the season, so the Blues’ Stanley Cup run certainly had an effect. But that’s a good problem to have. Our community has a division champion baseball team and a Stanley Cup champion hockey team. It’s a great time for St. Louis sports.”

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