Nats Striking Out on TV

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 8, 2008

The Washington Nationals are drawing the smallest U.S. regional television audience in baseball this season, attracting less than one-third the average number of households of any other team, according to an analysis of Nielsen Media Research data published yesterday by SportsBusiness Journal.

The Nationals, whose games are broadcast on either MASN or MASN2, are drawing a 0.39 average rating and an average of 9,000 households in the Washington market, according to the report. That's a decline of about 43 percent from last season's totals, and a significantly lower regional sports network audience than any other U.S. team has drawn this season. The figures do not include potential viewers outside the Washington market; MASN's reach stretches from Harrisburg, Pa., to Charlotte.

The Baltimore Orioles, whose games also appear on MASN and MASN2, are averaging a 3.05 rating and 33,000 households in the Baltimore market. Aside from the Nationals, the Kansas City Royals have attracted the lowest regional audience, approximately 28,000 households.

The Nationals have been beset by a string of injuries to their best-known players, and have the worst record in Major League Baseball. The team's average paid attendance in its new stadium is 29,754, which ranks 15th in the 30-team league.

A MASN spokesman cited the team's injuries and short history in Washington as contributing to the low television ratings, and emphasized the strong attendance of both the franchise and Major League Baseball as a whole.

"This is a marathon and not a sprint," Todd Webster, the spokesman, said. "The team is still relatively new. It is still building. Obviously they've had some tough breaks on the field with some injuries, but they have an outstanding ownership and management team in place and we expect that those ratings will improve. It is still the national pastime."

Webster said he doesn't believe the fact that all Nationals games are not on the same channel hurts the team's ratings. The Nationals referred all questions to MASN.

The Nationals own a portion of MASN, but are not the majority shareholders in the network. The Orioles are the majority shareholders, the result of the bargain that baseball struck with Orioles owner Peter Angelos when it relocated the Nationals franchise to Washington.

SportsBusiness Journal reported last month that Orioles broadcasts on MASN and MASN2 are drawing higher ratings in the Washington market than are Nationals broadcasts.

Network baseball ratings have dropped across the board this season, according to the report, but teams that have succeeded on the field have seen large increases in local ratings. The surprising Tampa Bay Rays, for example, have seen their ratings on FSN Florida jump more than 30 percent over last year's figures.

"If things turn around next year [for the Nationals], you'll find ratings on the mend," said Lee Berke, president and chief executive of sports television consulting firm LHB and a former executive with the MSG Network. "It doesn't strike me as unbelievably low given the situation the Nationals are in, which is a start-up team in a town that has a lot of divided loyalties. Things do turn around."

The Washington Capitals saw their local ratings spike during their late-season surge last season. The Capitals broadcasts drew a 0.78 rating and an average of 17,940 households on Comcast SportsNet and CSN+, more than double the previous year's audience. Wizards regular season games, also on Comcast SportsNet, averaged a 0.9 rating (20,700 households) in the Washington market. Through eight regular season games this year, D.C. United has averaged a 0.5 rating (11,500 households) on CSN, which has a business relationship with The Washington Post.

"Apart from the Redskins, which is a totally separate ballgame, these teams are going to rise and fall with their performance on the field, and they sort of have to battle the fact that, particularly with the Nationals, they haven't been there for decades," Berke said. "You've got a marketplace that's been conditioned to following the Orioles for several decades. The reality is, you're creating a new generation of baseball fans for Washington, D.C. That's tough."

Staff writer Thomas Heath contributed to this report.

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