While the Detroit Tigers continued their losing ways during the 2018 baseball season, the club’s baseball fans were tuning them out in large numbers. The Tigers averaged a rating of 2.64 for the season, which was down 41 percent from their 4.48 rating in 2017, according to the Nielsen ratings company (as relayed by Bill Shea on Crain’s Detroit).
The rating is the lowest that the club has posted since the team lost 119 games during the 2003 season, and is down 71.3 percent over a five year period from their 2013 rating of 9.59, which was the highest in the major leagues. The 2018 numbers ranked 18th of 29 teams in U.S. Major League Baseball markets. Almost four times as many households tuned in to watch Tigers baseball in 2013.
While fans were not tuning into their television sets to watch the Tigers, attendance at the turnstiles also dropped by over 19 percent. They averaged 23,212 fans per game, which is down from 28,661 per game in 2017. Total attendance for the season dipped below the two million mark from a peak of over three million fans in 2012 and 2013. Detroit ranked 22nd of the 30 major league clubs in attendance last season.
The Tigers’ contract with Fox Sports Detroit pays the club $50 million per season through 2021. The continued drop in television ratings comes at a time when Fox Sports Detroit must be sold, along with 20 other regional sports networks, to facilitate the merger between Disney and 21st Century Fox. The team’s principal owner, Chris Ilitch, has made it known that the club will explore the possibility of starting or buying their own regional sports network which would include the Detroit Red Wings’ telecasts.
As the payouts from regional sports networks to baseball teams have skyrocketed with each new contract, there has been a growing trend with teams taking an ownership stake in the network. According to a report on FanGraphs, over half of all clubs have some ownership in a regional network.
Over one-third of local revenues are shared with other clubs through a central fund, pursuant to MLB’s collective bargaining agreement. Team ownership in the networks makes that formula more complicated, and not in a sharing kind of way. Still, if the Ilitch family is going to enter the TV business, it would make more sense for them to purchase some or all of the existing Fox Sports Detroit network, which already has contracts with providers who can reach 3.6 million subscribers in Michigan.
A large drop in television ratings, as well as cord cutting fans finding other ways to stream and watch their favorite teams, certainly won’t help the Tigers to get a larger sum of money for their TV rights, but that may not matter. If the Ilitch family owns the network, they are essentially paying themselves. And even with the drop in ratings, the Tigers were still the number one prime time show in Detroit over the summer, with demographics unmatched by any other programming during the same time period. For advertisers wanting to reach those viewers, baseball is the only game in town.
Ultimately, the number of people who attend games and turn in to watch Tiger baseball on television depends on one factor: winning. Ratings are down because the team is not winning, and management isn’t presently making much effort to field a competitive team. But if they build a winner, people will come.