By Liana B. Baker and Lisa Richwine
(Reuters) - When the mighty New York Yankee bats went silent during a humbling four-game sweep in the American League championship series, it was more than a blow to a franchise that has won 27 World Series titles. It also doomed the Fox TV network to what could rank as the lowest-rated World Series in history.
The series, which starts on Wednesday, pits the Detroit Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals or San Francisco Giants, a matchup that will not include one of the top five U.S. TV markets. The National League team will be decided in a winner-takes-all game seven on Monday night.
From a ratings standpoint, Fox executives were no doubt cheering for the Yankees, whose nationwide popularity extends beyond the 7.4 million homes that make its metropolitan area the largest U.S. market.
"If it doesn't go more than five games, it runs the risk of being the lowest-rated World Series," said Sam Sussman, sports activation director at media buying firm Starcom USA.
A seven-game series adds drama, and eyeballs, to a Fall Classic whose ratings have been slipping for three decades, according to Nielsen Sports Marketing Service. Last year, an average of 16.6 million viewers watched St. Louis beat the Texas Rangers in seven games. An average of 25 million people tuned in for the seven game series in 1997 in which the Florida Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians.
The Yankees proved a tonic for slipping ratings in 2009, when an average of 19.1 million viewers caught their six-game victory over the Philadelphia Phillies, a 40 percent hike from the previous year when the Phillies beat the Tampa Bay Rays in five games.
Of this year's remaining teams, San Francisco represents the largest TV market. It ranks as the sixth-biggest, according to Nielsen, while Detroit is 11th and St. Louis is 21st.
Either pairing with the Tigers "is definitely not the matchup that marketers or the executives at Fox had hoped for," Sussman said. "Any option with the Yankees not in it, it doesn't paint a pretty picture from a ratings perspective."
Michael Mulvihill, Fox Sports senior vice president of programming and research, counters that viewers will tune in to watch the Tigers, whose lineup features Miguel Cabrera, baseball's first triple crown winner since 1967. The triple crown is an unofficial title given to a player who leads his league in batting average, home runs and runs batted in.
If the Giants advance, they will bring a dramatic storyline after rebounding from the brink of elimination against the Cardinals. For St. Louis, making it to the World Series will give the team a chance to defend last year's title.
Still, Mulvihill admits the loss of the Yankees will hurt. "It's impactful," he says. "The Yankees are the No. 1 TV market and still the biggest brand in baseball."
Fox is getting $450,000 to $500,000 for a 30-second advertising spot, figures Brad Adgate, senior vice president and research director for Horizon Media. With a typical game featuring about 70 spots, Fox may collect between $31.5 million to $35 million in ad revenue per game.
In 2006, the last year for which Nielsen provides data, advertisers paid $399,025 for a 30-second spot for the Cardinals-Tigers contest.
Networks frequently are required to provide "make goods" - usually lower priced ads - if ratings don't meet guarantees for audience deliveries made to sponsors. Mulvihill declined to comment on whether Fox is providing "make good" compensation to its World Series advertisers.
A person with knowledge of Fox's business plan said that Fox's ad projections anticipate the series going to five games so that a longer championship would be a revenue windfall.
The worst scenario for Fox, of course, would be a repeat of the Yankees dismal four game sweep in the American League championship.
"Yes, we lost the Yankees," said Mulvihill, the Fox executive, "but if we can just get to a game six or seven, we're going to be in great shape."
(Reporting by Liana B. Baker in New York and Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles; Editing by Ronald Grover)