It has been a tumultuous year and a half, not just for the Cardinals, Major League Baseball and sports in general. The entire world has been greatly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
But while the U.S. has made major progress in the past six months, setbacks have been occurring recently. And the Cards are struggling to regain their pre-pandemic footing, with TV ratings and attendance down, but are confident it is a short-term situation.
“We’re going in the right direction,” Cardinals Senior Vice President Dan Farrell said Thursday.
Some of the issues:
• The rating for the team’s local television package is on track to be the worst in this century, not counting last year’s severely truncated season caused by the pandemic. This is nothing new — their TV viewership levels were significantly declining before the pandemic hit.
• The club has been able to go back to full-capacity attendance (about 45,500) since mid-June but has not come within 10,000 of filling Busch Stadium. The biggest crowd since the reopening is 34,812. And no sellouts are expected for the homestand that begins Friday. The foes are the Giants, who have the best record in the majors, and the Cubs, the Cards’ biggest rival.
On-field, TV situation
There are many factors to consider for the downturn in TV viewership and attendance.
The Cardinals not only have been mediocre (44-46), their offense has been boring. The Cards are 26th or worse in the majors in runs, batting average, OBP and OPS. That’s out of 30 teams. And their pitching staff leads the big leagues in walks issued and hit batters.
That has led to often lackluster, sometimes hard-to-watch games.
But there is the old adage, “winning cures a lot of things,” as was the case early in the season. The Cards were 30-22 and in first place in late May. Their telecasts on Bally Sports Midwest were seen in 6.1% of area homes through that month. Since then, the team has fallen two games under .500 and eight games out of first place. The rating since the start of June is 5.3.
But better play can only go so far to bring people back to the screens of their TV or other connected device. First, they have to be able to see the team on those instruments.
Bally Sports Midwest is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, which has been in financial disputes with several companies that provide programming to consumers. They will not pay what Sinclair is charging for BSM and other reginal sports networks it owns, thus they are not carrying the network. Impacted are subscribers to Dish Network, Hulu Live, FuboTV, Sling TV and YouTube TV.
Although this is said to have caused a loss of only about 10% of the total audience, that is significant — especially when some of those people have discovered they can live without the Cardinals. When a story appeared in this space not long ago about Sinclair making plans to offer its service directly to consumers next year, allowing them to skip the middleman, it elicited a series of comments from readers who have lost the games. Though certainly not a scientific sampling, some could be telling:
• “The sports teams need to realize that each person they lose when a TV system does not carry their games (like Dish) moves away from the sport as they get along without it. That includes being lesser inclined to pay a wad for a stadium seat and the cost of a six-pack for a single beer.”
• “Unlike boxing, baseball is not a spectacle. As George Will opined: ‘Baseball isn’t a sport, its a habit.’ If you break people of that habit ... many will not return.”
• “At this rate, baseball will become a minor sport in the next 25 years as another generation of football, basketball and soccer fans grows up. If the goal is to kill baseball, this is just another nail in the coffin. Sad.”
• “I’ve managed to survive without Cardinal tv broadcasts since Fox Sports Midwest was removed from the Dish package. There was a time that I’d have considered paying this, but that time is long past.”
That is troubling not only for Sinclair but for the Cards.
“That’s not something we can directly control,” said Farrell, who oversees the team’s broadcasting, sales and marketing operations.
Adding to the TV frustrations is that Sinclair still isn’t sending its announcers on the road, with technical issues being the reason given for why they continue to call away games by watching monitors in a St. Louis studio. The crew sometimes has no idea of what is taking place on the field, leading to a substandard product. That was tolerable when travel restrictions were in place during pandemic but not now.
It’s a bad look, especially when the Cardinals’ radio broadcasters are traveling. (They work for the team, not Sinclair.) What a novel concept — announcers actually being able to see what they are describing.
There are other factors that also could be affecting the Cardinals’ attendance and TV viewership.
• The team’s support last year of the Black Lives Matter movement angered some fans.
“I think the team is committed to talking about — and trying to be a positive force for — social justice,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. said on KMOX (1120 AM), the flagship station of the team’s radio network, as the short season was about to begin. “And I think Black Lives Matter is certainly an element of that, and we take it very seriously
“This year, all clubs in Major League Baseball will one way or another do their part to try to correct some of the injustice that’s occurred over many years. ... We, as an organization, are totally committed to it. It’s an important social responsibility, I believe, of an institution like the St. Louis Cardinals. We’ll continue to support all the efforts that go into having social justice and the program for Black Lives Matter.”
That stance led to some to say they’d never attend of watch again on TV because they don’t want politics and sports mixing.
• The anger of some people who worked at bars/restaurants that closed after the team opened Ballpark Village, vowing to not support a team they think put them out of work.
• A heightened fear of crime downtown also undoubtedly has kept some people away.
Could much of this be a blip, an aberration mostly caused by the pandemic? Sure.
It is fair to say that the TV ratings, while down at the All-Star break for the third consecutive season — by 28% over the 2017 figure — actually could be considered good.
That’s because overall television viewership is massively declining. Despite the retreating numbers, the Cards are second nationally in local MLB ratings. And a Bally Sports Midwest analysis shows that in 2007, Cards prime-time telecasts drew 23% of people watching either the game or programming on the four local major network affiliates — KMOV (Channel 4), KSDK (Channel 5), KTVI (Channel 2) and KDNL (Channel 30). This year, the ballgames account for 34% of that audience. The study said that while Cards viewership has fallen 23% in the past 15 years, the decline for those four stations ranges from 53%-62%.
“Consumption is changing,” BSM general manager Jack Donovan said. “The audience is splintered with more choices than ever. But Cardinals baseball — and live sports in general — has retained its audience and continues to dominate St. Louis viewing during the season.”
Attendance is being affected by factors that linger from months ago and would not figure to impact the team next season.
The Cardinals draw from a wide region, and many fans from far-flung areas center their summer vacations around a trip to St. Louis to see the team play. But last winter, when plans were being made, there was uncertainty about where the country would be with the virus by summer. In fact, it wasn’t until last month that the Cards began selling tickets to later-season games. (They usually open sales in December.) Many people who otherwise likely would have been Busch-bound are doing something else.
“In a normal year, by opening day we usually are 85% sold out for the year, which is a base of about 34,000 (per game),” Farrell said. “When we started selling tickets (in mid-June), we had a base of about 20,000.”
But what about locals? There was a thought they’d flock to the ballpark given the pent-up desire to be able to return to an activity that so many enjoy. That has not happened en masse but isn’t unexpected, Farrell said. He pointed out that the club often sells 5,000-7,000 tickets to groups, a number that has been curtailed, as well as a decline in sales to corporations that rent all-inclusive rooms.
There hasn’t been time for these organizations to put their plans together,” he said. ”It takes a long time to get that foundation back.”
The Cards have had 10 home games since they were allowed to fully reopen the ballpark, all against last-place teams — the Marlins, Pirates and Diamondbacks — so less-than-full houses is not a big surprise. Those contests averaged about 28,300, well below the nearly 43,000 the club was at in 2019. (It had no crowds last season.)
Selling tickets has been such a tougher business for the team that for a short time it offered basically freebies for upcoming games against attractive foes — the Cubs, Brewers and Dodgers. For six bucks, purchasers got not only admission to the game but a $6 credit toward food, drinks or merchandise at the ballpark. That deal expired, but as of Thursday tickets for about $21 were available on the Cardinals’ website for all four games next week against the Cubs — contests for which the Cards usually charge a premium.
Farrell said crowds in the “mid to upper 30 (thousands)” are expected for most of the homestand, possibly more for Saturday.
In short, it has been an unprecedented year and a half. And the return to “normal,” especially from a Cardinals perspective, is a work in progress.