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The View From Pluto: Sports-Starved Fans Tuning in for Big MLB Ratings

TV and radio ratings will be key for MLB teams with no fans being allowed in ballparks this season.
Sean Fitzgerald
TV and radio ratings will be key for MLB teams with no fans being allowed in ballparks this season.

Major League Baseball’s pandemic-shortened season is just getting started, but if television ratings are any indication, sports-starved fans are hungry for major league sports.

According to WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto, without fans in the stands at Progressive Field, TV viewership is key this year for the Cleveland Indians. 

Strong ratings so farPluto said the Indians had their second highest TV rating ever for an opening game. The highest rating came in 2017, a year after the team came within one game of winning the franchise's first World Series since 1948. 

"I guess all those people who sent me emails that they weren't going to watch any baseball because they're mad at the players, the owners and everybody else when things are sitting out, I think they got bored and turned on the TV," Pluto said. 

Pluto believes the ratings will continue to remain high without much else going on in terms of entertainment and live sports, at least locally. 

"The NBA is going to start up with their regular season over the weekend, but the Cavs are not involved in that," he said.

What a good year means for the Indians 

ESPN broadcast several games for the opening weekend of the season, having some its highest-ever ratings. 

"I think there were eight teams [that] had the highest ratings for their games, if anything, in their market," Pluto said, showing an appetite for baseball among viewers. 

For the Indians' on-field product, Pluto thinks a good year for the squad would include reaching the expanded postseason and holding momentum heading into next year. 

"That's what they need. It's going to be hard to sell tickets to games almost anywhere next year, and I really believe that because the lingering virus, whether you get a vaccine or not, it's going to be difficult," he said.

Pluto said momentum is key for smaller-market teams like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Kansas City or Detroit that don't have huge TV contracts.

"Even though they're playing, you don't have any fans in the stands and that's whacking half of your income for most teams," he said.

Trying to finish a season

Players want to stay healthy so they can play and earn money from free agent deals and that means getting through the abbreviated season. 

Pluto said the league is trying to push a season through, but the players have an incentive, too. 

"The contract that players and owners finally settled on was players getting their full prorated salaries for every game played," Pluto said. "There is the game within the game within the game, there's a lot going on here. The virus looms over it."

Weighing pros and cons

If ratings stay up and players stay healthy, a shortened season might end up working out for MLB. 

"Almost everything we do is sort of a risk versus reward. If I go out and drive somewhere, the longer I drive and the more traffic, the more likely I am to have an accident," Pluto said.

"In terms of sports, let's make sure that yes, something can happen. Let's put the odds as much as in our favor, and we have millions of dollars in medical support to do it."

The risks of playing have become evident in light of the Miami Marlins having 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among their players and staff, following a report of 13 confirmed cases on Monday. 

The team is quarantining in Philadelphia, where they played during Opening Weekend. The Philadelphia Phillieshave postponed two games so far this week. 

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

Sean Fitzgerald is a senior journalism major at Kent State University working as a 2020 summer news intern. Sean has been with Black Squirrel Radio, Kent State's student-run radio station since the spring of 2018 as a sports show host and co-host, a web article contributor and sports department coordinator. Sean hopes to pursue a career in sports journalism once he finishes school.
Mark has been a host, reporter and producer at several NPR member stations in Delaware, Alaska, Washington and Kansas. His reporting has taken him everywhere from remote islands in the Bering Sea to the tops of skyscrapers overlooking Puget Sound. He is a diehard college basketball fan who enjoys taking walks with his dog, Otis.