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MLB season returns to strong ratings

New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge (l) celebrates a homer by designated hitter Giancarlo Stanton during MLB's Opening Day on July 23 at Nationals Park. The game posted a strong series of audience gains for ESPN. (Photo by Jonathan Newton /The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The start of the amended 2020 Major League Baseball season, as expected, generated a strong series of television ratings as fans embraced the league’s return amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

ESPN’s season-opening coverage on July 23 of the New York Yankees at Washington Nationals drew an average of 4m viewers, marking the most-watched MLB regular-season game on any network since 2011. The figure was up from ESPN’s Opening Night telecast last year by 232 per cent, and its prior Opening Night record set in 2017 by 8 per cent.

Locally, the game generated a 8.4 rating in the Washington, District of Columbia, market, making it the highest-rated MLB game ever on ESPN in the market. In New York, the 7.8 rating made it the highest-rated MLB game on ESPN since 2015.

The Yankees-Nationals game, a 4-1 victory for New York, was cut short by weather after five innings of play. ESPN and Nielsen Media Research data showed the game peaked at 4.48m viewers at 8:30 p.m. ET, just as that rain began to fall at Nationals Park. Had the game been played to its full length, the final audience number might have been even higher.

ESPN’s late-window game, meanwhile of the San Francisco Giants at Los Angeles Dodgers generate an average audience of 2.76m, making it ESPN’s most-watched MLB regular season late-night game ever. A 6.9 local rating in San Francisco made it the highest-rated regular season MLB game in the market since 2013. A 6.8 local rating in Los Angeles represented ESPN’s second-highest regular season game ever there.

Fox Sports, meanwhile, posted a 2.1 average rating for its July 25 primetime coverage of the Yankees and Nationals, up 17 per cent from its full-season average in 2019 for its MLB primetime regular season games. The 5.2 average local rating in Washington was Fox Sports’ best in that market for regular season baseball in two years. 

Earlier on July 25, Fox Sports’ coverage of the Milwaukee Brewers at Chicago Cubs, and Giants at Dodgers also posted double-digit percentage increases over its 2018 audience averages for daytime baseball telecasts.

The network’s daylong MLB coverage also marked the debut of Fox Sports’ experimentation with virtual fans to help fell in ballparks that are empty due to the pandemic.

The audience boosts did not reach the 40 per cent gain Fox Sports had previously anticipated, as the network in much of the heavily populated Northeast United States competed with hot, sunny summer weather that does lend itself as much to mass TV viewing. But the more modest viewership gains still showed a level of pent-up fan demand for baseball.

And on a local level, the story was even stronger. On July 24, the first full day of scheduled MLB games following ESPN’s featured doubleheader the prior day, nine markets had regional sports network coverage of MLB as its top-ranked programming across all of TV: Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Houston, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, San Diego, and St. Louis. Twelve more local markets that day had MLB as the top-ranked programming on cable TV.