There’s nothing quite like the optimism of opening day, and Major League Baseball has to be feeling pretty good about the 2015 season after a strong trio of numbers came out. The MLB Network drew its biggest opening day audience ever, the audience for ESPN’s opening day programming rose 48 percent over last year, and MLB Advanced Media, the league’s digital arm, broke its own record for the number of games streamed live or on demand.
ESPN averaged 1.37 million viewers through five games, a nearly 50 percent jump from 926,000 people in the same period last year. The network's household Nielsen ratings were also up 50 percent from the previous year, from 0.6 in 2014 to 0.9 this year. The MLB Network’s audience peaked at 222,000 at 7 p.m. MLB Advanced Media, which handles digital video for the sport and a number of very high-profile clients, announced that it delivered a record 60 million viewers to live or on-demand streams of games, a 60 percent increase over last year’s total.
Whether that growth is sustained remains to be seen. At a national level, Major League Baseball does have a ratings problem. A new TV deal with Fox that went into effect last season cut back on the number of games airing on network television, and MLB became the first of the four major North American sports to average ratings below 1.0. That same year, virtually the entire baseball postseason, except for the World Series, aired on cable channels TBS and Fox Sports 1.
That cutback may have driven fans to watch more in local markets. Last year, 12 regional sports networks that cover specific MLB teams were No. 1 in primetime ratings in their home markets during the baseball season, and another seven ranked in the top three. Many of those teams are in smaller markets, like St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, though regional sports networks in Boston, Seattle and Baltimore all claimed top spots in local ratings, according to Nielsen.
Despite the fact that Major League Baseball is seen as a sport in decline, the reality is that its revenues rose 13 percent last year, to $9 billion, which is at least in the same tax bracket as the mighty NFL, which generated $9.2 billion in revenue in 2013. A growing chunk of that comes from MLB Advanced Media, a limited partnership that’s projected to generate more than $1 billion in revenue next year.