Last December, Major League Baseball and ESPN announced a significant change to its Sunday Night Baseball program, moving up the starting time of the games from 8:00 PM ET to 7:00 ET. Although seemingly a small change, the league hoped that it would prompt more fans — particularly children — to be able to watch the entirety of the game.
This turned out to be a success, with ratings increasing by up to 3% over last year, as reported back in June. So why haven’t they brought the same philosophy to the playoffs?
The MLB Playoffs should be the league’s biggest event of the season, and yet they have continuously seen shrinking ratings over the last couple of years. This includes this year’s much-hyped ALCS rematch between the Yankees and the Houston Astros, which has seen a 6% drop from 2017. This is the matchup that has been hyped since mid-summer, the series expected to be the crown jewel of a highly-anticipated playoff run, and while it has been exciting for diehard baseball fans, the response of the general public has been...meh.
While the matchups often have a major impact on the ratings — the casual fan would much rather watch a Yankees-Red Sox series than, say, a Tampa Bay Rays-Kansas City Royals one — the league still has a few cards they can play. The most prominent of these is the time of the game.
It’s very clear that baseball’s marketing strategy in recent years has been to focus on the league’s young stars in order to attract the country’s younger fans. Considering that playoff games regularly result in games that last well over the three-hour average, playoff games that start at 8:00 oftentimes don’t end until after midnight. Considering that we are in the middle of the school year, elementary and middle-school students are certainly going to bed well before the game’s end (and for this reason might not even start watching in the first place). If the game goes into extra innings, high school and college students might be joining them as well.
I understand that there are reasons that the games are scheduled at the time they are. For one, having an 8:00 ET start time keeps the game in primetime in as many markets as possible for as long as possible, and marketing executives buy advertising expecting primetime spots. In this respect, a 7:00 start would be inefficient. They also have to take timezones into account. The league, however, has clearly been willing to work with an earlier time spot for its regular-season flagship series, and it has benefited from doing so.
It’s time to take those lessons and bring them to October. While not a significant change, a 7:00 game time could go a long way to making the games more accessible to casual viewers and younger fans.