The Big LeadThe Big Lead

Contextualizing MLB's Regional Business Dominance Compared to the NBA

Detroit Tigers v Anaheim Angels
MLB baseball | Jeff Gross/Getty Images

It's undeniable that the NBA has MLB beat when it comes to nationally -- and internationally -- recognizable stars and conversational relevance. Ratings are generally higher for nationwide NBA broadcasts than MLB's, and this extends to the Finals vs. World Series, except for outlier events like a Game 7 and/or the Cubs winning for the first time in over 100 years. Nevertheless, there is a narrative about the health of the two leagues that does not properly account for MLB's remarkable regional dominance when it comes to both attendance and TV ratings.

The Big Lead analyzed Nielsen ratings data on how MLB and NBA games perform on regional sports networks (RSNs). Here are some relevant metrics:

For the full 2019 season, MLB RSN games averaged a 2.86 rating and NBA games averaged a 2.3 rating per game for the 2018-19 season. This means that MLB games rated 24 percent higher than NBA games, before accounting for the fact that a) There are twice as many games in MLB, and b) MLB games last on average about 50 minutes longer, meaning more advertising inventory.

Mark Cuban suggested that cord-cutting is the prevailing reason that national NBA ratings are down, but MLB has not been impacted nearly as much as the NBA in local and national regular season ratings the past two years. For example, Sunday Night Baseball ratings were up year-over-year on ESPN this past season. Regionally, the NBA was down 4.2 percent (2.4 vs. 2.3) from 2017-18 to 2018-19. Sports Business Journal reported that NBA regional ratings were down another 7 percent in the first month of this season. MLB regional ratings were down just 1 percent from 2018 to 2019 (2.89 vs. 2.86).

[Clarification: The data we analyzed for NBA did not include Memphis, Utah, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans; Utah and OKC had the second and third highest NBA regional ratings last season and pushed up the average. This has been corrected in the previous two paragraphs.]

Perhaps some of the difference can be attributed to the fact that MLB has older viewership demographics, and younger viewers are the ones who are cutting the cord or never becoming pay-TV subscribers in the first place. However, it's hard to mathematically grapple with the idea that cord-cutting is a bigger variable in the NBA's present issues than injured stars and a greater variety of said stars and storylines in the West vs. the East. MLB regular season games also go up against a lot less football, which does bonkers viewership compared to every other sport as well as everything else on TV, compared to the NBA.

MLB got higher per-game RSN ratings than the NBA in 14 of 17 U.S. markets that have franchises for both, when comparing the 2019 MLB season with the 2018-19 NBA season. This even includes Los Angeles, where Angels (1.24) plus Dodgers (1.76) was greater than Lakers (2.33) plus Clippers (.56). Through November 19th of this season, the Lakers and Clippers would be a smidge higher; while Lakers grew to 3.1 and the Clippers grew to 1.01. That being said, the Dodgers are still blacked out in a majority of Southern California homes due to a carriage dispute. With full carriage, MLB would conceivably still be higher. The three markets where the NBA won were Dallas, Miami, and the Bay Area, where the Warriors (7.5) trounced the Giants (2.34) and A's (.76) combined.

Here is what MLB vs. NBA RSN ratings look like in the country's seven biggest TV markets:

Note that New York has the Yankees and Mets added together vs. the Knicks and Nets, Los Angeles has Clippers and Lakers vs. Dodgers and Angels, and Chicago has Cubs and White Sox vs. Bulls. Even without the White Sox included in the picture, the Cubs more than tripled the Bulls in per-game viewership (4.11 vs. 1.36). When taking into account MLB's 162-game slate and the length of the games, the blue side of the bar graph more than doubles in comparison to the red side, which stays flat, in overall reach. (Full MLB and NBA regional ratings are included in an appendix at the bottom of this article)

You get a similar story with attendance. The median MLB team draws about 28,000 fans per game. The median NBA team draws about 18,000 (there are plenty of times in both MLB and NBA where the announced attendance figure strains credulity, but it seems reasonable to assume that they massage the numbers on a level playing field). When you consider again that MLB has about twice as many games, it means that they have about three times as many fans paying to come to games, buying concessions and merchandise, and developing that emotional attachment to a team that is unique to the live experience.

It's important to note that none of this is to say that the NBA is dying and the MLB has no underlying issues. The NBA has younger TV demographics. 1.6 times the amount of people watch the average NBA game on ESPN versus the average MLB game on ESPN (ESPN NBA games averaged 1.6 million viewers last season; Sunday Night Baseball was right in this neighborhood, but when you account for Monday and Wednesday night telecasts the average MLB game on ESPN draws around a million). On broadcast TV, NBA regular season games on ABC average about 3.6 million viewers while MLB games on FOX are around 2.2 million. While we saw recently there are potential pitfalls with regard to authoritarian regimes, the NBA has a much more robust international runway than MLB.

Nonetheless, MLB's story of regional dominance is undersold in the proverbial conversational narrative. There is a lot to be envious of in baseball's ability to aggregate local audiences.

Here are regional ratings for MLB and NBA. These capture the 2019 MLB season and 2018-19 NBA season. The number in parentheses for NBA teams is how they were performing on RSNs through November 19th of this season. Oklahoma City and New Orleans data were not available for our analysis.

Markets with both MLB and NBA

Atlanta
Braves - 3.62
Hawks - .59 (1.09)

Boston
Red Sox - 5.25
Celtics - 2.67 (3.45)

Chicago
White Sox - .95
Cubs - 4.11
Bulls - 1.36 (1.93)

Cleveland
Indians - 6.55
Cavs - 3.32 (2.97)

Dallas
Rangers - 1.17
Mavericks - 1.29 (1.53)

Denver
Rockies - 3.05
Nuggets - 1.4 (n/a)

Detroit
Tigers - 2.4
Pistons - 1.42 (1.3)

Houston
Astros - 4.87
Rockets - 2.31 (2.03)

Los Angeles
Angels - 1.24
Dodgers - 1.76
Clippers - .56 (1.01)
Lakers - 2.33 (3.1)

Miami
Marlins - .83
Heat - 2.32 (2.86)

Minneapolis
Twins - 6.33
Wolves - 2.2 (1.55)

Milwaukee
Brewers - 6.37
Bucks - 3.07 (2.86)

New York
Yankees - 3.02
Mets - 2.27
Nets - .46 (.57)
Knicks - .90 (1.15)

Philadelphia
Phillies - 4.06
Sixers - 2.8 (3.64)

Phoenix
Diamondbacks - 2.18
Suns - .79 (1.24)

San Francisco
A's - .76
Giants - 2.34
Warriors - 7.5 (3.31)

Washington DC
Nationals - 2.29
Wizards - 1.19 (.56)

MLB, no NBA

Baltimore - 2.39
Cincinnati - 5.16
Kansas City - 4.43
Pittsburgh - 4.72
San Diego - 3.76
Seattle - 2.63
St. Louis - 6.59
Tampa Bay - 2.78

NBA, no MLB

Charlotte - .95 (.61)
Indianapolis - 3.44 (2.59)
New Orleans - n/a
Oklahoma City - n/a
Orlando - .51 (.97)
Portland - 3.55 (3.15)
Sacramento - 1.70 (1.49)
San Antonio - 4.58 (3.69