Baseball returned to some sense of normalcy in the year 2021, as regular day-to-day life slowly came back while the pandemic wanes. Stadiums and arenas welcomed fans again, as did their soundtrack: the cheers, the roars and the boos — the latter, mostly directed at the Houston Astros, the American League representative in this year’s Fall Classic.
The club earned their third trip to the World Series within a five-year span. All-Stars like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman have been at the center of all their success. But they’re also at the heart of the infamous 2017 sign-stealing scandal exposed following their 2019 World Series loss. To borrow a term from the pro wrestling world, the Astros soon became the primary heels of the sport. Their higher-ups got punished by either suspension or unemployment (relatively brief, in hindsight), but the roster got off scot-free. A firestorm was brewing during spring training in 2020, with a war of words between Astros players (especially Correa) and key opposing players (Dodgers’ Clay Bellinger and Yankees’ Aaron Judge). Then, the pandemic hit in 2020, and no major sports were in live action until mid-July. Upon baseball’s return, the kinds of hostile environments the Astros would have encountered in other city’s stadiums were replaced with no fans and no sound. They’d reach as far as the League Championship Series, but fell short to the Tampa Bay Rays at the neutral site in San Diego. Non-Astros fans’ ire were delayed by one year. Yet, Houston persevered in 2021 — all the while with legendary manager and beloved MLB figure Dusty Baker, who assumed the role after previous Astros manager A.J. Hinch was let go due to the scandal. For Baker, it is his fifth team to win their division (joining the Giants, Cubs, Reds, and Nationals) and his second to reach the World Series (joining the 2002 Giants). He will vie for the first world championship in his managerial career.
The squad that will try to deny that feat will be the Atlanta Braves. Their season proved once again that MLB is a marathon, not a sprint. For the first four months of the season, the Braves were a mediocre club hovering around the .500 mark but not quite surpassing it. And then, to make matters worse, they lost their young superstar Ronald Acuna Jr. to a freak leg injury on the right field warning track during a July 10 game in Miami. For most teams, an absence of a perennial league MVP contender would devastate one’s title chances. But trade deadline deals for then-underperforming outfielders to fill Acuna’s void — Adam Duvall, Joc Pederson, Eddie Rosario and Jorge Soler — soon seemed to benefit Atlanta. They went from languishing in third place in the N.L. East to rising to first place in the division starting on Aug. 15, a spot they never relinquished thru to season’s end. The Braves entered the postseason with the least amount of wins for a division winner (88) but prevailed over the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Dodgers, having avenged their crushing loss to those same Dodgers one year prior despite holding a 3-1 series lead in the 2020 NLCS.
What will a Braves-Astros World Series mean for Fox? The network certainly would have instead favored the presence of the Dodgers. All 12 of their playoff games ranked in the top 17 (as well as 6 Dodgers games of the top nine overall) most-watched telecasts of this postseason; the top one being the game that kicked off their October run: the walk-off win over the St. Louis Cardinals in the wild card game.
Sports have seen a rebound, of sorts, of their TV ratings this year, and Major League Baseball was no exception. The league itself vastly improved upon its 2020 playoff viewing figures: up 89 percent for the Wild Card games and up 56 percent for Division Series contests. Yet, postseason audience delivery has been on par with their 2019 performance. It’s probable viewer trends continue into this World Series — up from last year but at or slightly below 2019 levels. What might stymie its ratings potential are the participants involved. While the higher-profile Dodgers and Red Sox usually got prime time slots, the Astros and Braves frequented playing in the lesser-viewed afternoons.
MLB and Fox hope that two factors could help bolster Fall Classic numbers: those who tuned in to the NLCS for the Dodgers could hang around to see how the Braves do, and the aspect of hate-watching the Astros, as in caring to witness these games for the hopes of schadenfreude — delighting in Houston’s misfortune. Even if their hopes come to fruition, it won’t mean it’ll top the 13.9 million viewer average from 2019, the year the Astros last played in the World Series. If not for it going the full boat (seven games), it would have been the least-watched Fall Classic pre-pandemic. In addition, linear television viewing overall has eroded significantly in recent years; the Fox broadcast network itself already afflicted this fall TV season, as their regularly-scheduled non-sports programs have thus far proven disappointing. A ten-percent gain from an all-time low set last year is projected, meaning a 10.7 million-viewer average for the 2021 World Series.
Several other professionals in the media industry provided their ratings predictions for the upcoming World Series, upon request. Here are their takes:
Marc Berman, Editor-in-Chief of Programming Insider
No, I am not the Marc Berman from The New York Post who writes about sports. Trust me when I say I know very little about this topic. Naturally, the average viewing tally will be determined by the number of games. If it goes to game 7, that will be beneficial. Whether it does or not, the ratings for Houston versus Atlanta will likely mirror the current downward trend for almost everything on linear. And my prediction is an average 11.2 million viewers for the series.
Jon Lewis, Sports Media Watch
Astros-Braves ratings will be up. Doesn’t necessarily mean they will be good. But they will be up, unless you have a four-game sweep with each game decided by 10+ runs. The only possible matchup this postseason that I think could have realistically fallen below last year would have been Brewers-Rays.
I’ll say 11.5 million for a five-game series. This sounds more like an NLDS than a World Series, and while good games will be the ultimate factor, I think it will take 6 or 7 games to crack the 12 million mark.
Dan Serafin, News 12 The Bronx/Brooklyn sports anchor
This one will depend a lot on the series itself. I don’t see a lot of excitement coming in… but if we get a competitive series that goes 6, 7 games I could see a late lift. 12 million.
Scott Nolte, Northwest Iowa Y100.1 FM (KUYY) deejay-sports announcer
12.9 million. This is not a big time matchup with a ton of stars, but viewers will still watch since it is the first time for Atlanta in 22 years.
Jason Jacobs, Northwest Iowa Campus Radio 103.9 (KUOO) deejay-sports announcer
10.51 million. The ratings tick back up this year, even though the Astros and Braves might not be major national draws. If Atlanta gets blown out, though, the ratings could sink even lower than last year.
Ken Fang, Awful Announcing
I’ll go with 11.7 million average viewership for Atlanta-Houston. While Fox would have loved Boston-LAD in this year’s Fall Classic, it will have to deal with a Deep South World Series. While 2021 will do better than 2020, it’ll still be lower than 2019.
Andrew Marchand, New York Post sports media columnist and co-host of the Marchand & Ourand Sports Media Podcast
11.6 million. The series will be up because everything is up over last year, but the matchup will not excite the nation.
Timothy Burke, President at Burke Communications
12 million. People underestimate the size and interest in the Atlanta market and the general bounce that comes from this season of sports.
Terence Henderson, T Dog Media
Viewership for Astros-Braves should be up from last year’s low even though the Dodgers are done – having full stadiums of fans could make a difference and enhance the viewing experience. My prediction is 11.4 million viewers.
Dave Weekley, “Hotline” host on Metro News Radio Network
Despite the absence of traditional ratings producing teams like the Red Sox and Dodgers who were eliminated in the LCS, I think we will bounce back after last year’s weak COVID-impacted audience numbers. I’m predicting we will return to an average of 14 million viewers for this year’s World Series, featuring the Braves, who will be looking for their first title in a quarter century.
Phillip Swann, TV Answer Man
I’m going with 10 million, a minuscule increase over the Covid Series in 2020, due to the lack of a glamour team. When LA and Boston lost, so did MLB and TV. Atlanta and Houston will help ratings in the South, but not enough to offset a significant loss on the Coasts.
Maury Brown, Forbes
11.9 million (12.9 if it goes 7 games)
The pandemic made for an odd year in 2020, so I’m expecting it to bounce back. But the numbers will not be as high without one of the league’s larger brands like we saw in 2018. Even if it gets to seven games I don’t expect it to match 2014, which was a lower draw. The reason? It’s largely a southern state matchup.
Evan Boyd, Stats by STATS researcher
This will be an interesting series with the Astros back in the World Series for the first time since the sign stealing scandal broke, and we have a large fanbase with the Braves rooting for their team for the first time this century. Still, I do not think the markets or the series will produce anything dramatic. I’ll say 11 million.
Daniel Kaplan, sports business reporter at The Athletic
Sports TV ratings are on the rise, so I see this World Series matchup beating the 2019 figure slightly, and easily surpassing last year. Two big market also, one Houston looking for redemption, and the other back in the series after more than two decades
Bill Brioux, Brioux.TV
Broadcast numbers continue to circle the drain and unless you live in Houston, with this team, you have a problem. 7.4 million.
Dan Cohen, Senior Vice President of Octagon Sports and Entertainment Network
This year’s World Series will be an interesting combination of the headwinds of two markets not named Boston or LA but fueled by the tailwinds of a ‘return’ of viewership for recent jewel events. MLB cracks the 10-million mark; if it goes seven games, it’ll land at 10.9 million.
Bill Shea, senior writer at The Athletic
A 14 million average. Why? Because we’ve seen a general recovery from 2020’s pandemic-roiled live TV viewership, and 2021 Nielsen includes out-of-home viewing metrics that were not included prior to 2020 in average totals — but it could have been higher if it was a Dodgers-Red Sox series because those are larger markets.
Frank Isola, ESPN/SiriusXM NBA Radio host/Nets studio analyst for YES Network
13.5 million…..The Chop vs. The Garbage can bangers.
Lou D’Ermilio, LOUD Communications, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports media relations
We’re looking at a six-game series won by the Astros that will average 13.5 million viewers. Toss out last year’s low viewership as a COVID-generated aberration. This year, the Braves, who have a wide following throughout the southeast, have returned to the World Series for the first time in over 20 years, and the Astros, still stung by the cheating scandal, have something to prove.
Jay Posner, sports editor of San Diego Union-Tribune
11.4 million … Having two large-market teams should help but it could be difficult to get casual fans engaged unless the rules change to allow neither team to win.
Michael McCarthy, Senior Writer at Front Office Sports
11.5 million. The Braves boast a strong national fan base. The Astros are everybody’s favorite villain outside the Yankees.
Bob Klapisch, Newark Star-Ledger baseball columnist
I foresee a viewership of 13.1 million, a nice bounce-back from last year but still one of the lowest ratings in MLB history. The World Series is a tough sell nationally without NY-LA-Chicago-Boston.
Pat Boyle, WFAN sports radio producer/host and co-host of The Boyle & Shen Show podcast
11.2 million. Matchup itself doesn’t have a lot of “juice”, MLB continues to struggle marketing its superstars, and I don’t think people want to watch and root against the Astros that much anymore. It’s a pretty boring World Series, in my opinion.
Lori Rubinson, WFAN sports radio talk show host
I’ll predict 13.95 million. 2019 is a good comp – you have Houston vs. an NL East team from a decent-sized market again.
Jimmy Traina, writer at Sports Illustrated and host of SI Media Podcast
11.3 million. While I think there could be some interest here in people rooting against the Astros because they’re still upset they cheated, this isn’t a sexy matchup in any way shape or form.
Richard Deitsch, sports media columnist at The Athletic and host of the Sports Media podcast
12.1 million — Will casuals tune in to root against the Astros? I’m just not sure. I think Fox needs length here for the number to match 2018.
Ryan Glasspiegel, New York Post sports/entertainment reporter
9.1 million – It’s going to be an all-time low because, even though Atlanta and Houston are not tiny markets, the fact that they are both in the South is going to hurt. Nonetheless, this number will still be very good compared to virtually anything else on TV that is not football.
Eno Sarris, baseball analytics writer at The Athletic
14 million. This is an almost exact match for the Washington/Houston World Series in terms of the size of each market, and the odds suggest that this one will go to six or seven games — the Astros are a favorite but sites like FanGraphs have them at a 52/48 favorite, not an overwhelming one. I think it’ll get a little more viewership than the 2019 series because of the Astros’ cheating scandal breaking since then.
Patrick Crakes, Crakes Media Consulting, former Senior Vice President of Fox Sports Senior Vice President Programming in Research & Content Strategy
The World Series is always tough to predict as a significant portion of its viewing delivery occurs is across “if necessary” (Games 5, 6, and 7). So, in truth you’re in part selecting the number of games the series will produce as much as overall viewing delivery. For 2021, I see Houston and Atlanta going the distance of seven games which will compensate some for their overall muted national followings. The end result should be 13.1M viewers on an average minute viewer basis, up +33.8% over 2020’s atypical pandemic 6 game series of L.A Dodgers-Tampa Bay but down -5.7% from 2019’s Washington-Houston tilt that went seven games. As it has been forever, expect the World Series to be a top five Prime time program among viewers for the week across Total Viewers, Households and the key demos of Adults 18-49 and Adults 25-54. All in, the 2021 World Series should net out as the second lowest rated of the last eight (2014) surpassing only 2020’s pandemic impacted series.
David Barron, Houston Chronicle sports media columnist
12.7 million. Dusty Baker’s presence may draw some fans from the Left Coast, but not enough to offset the absence of an I-95 team.
Steve Kaplowitz, afternoon sports talk radio host at 600 ESPN El Paso (Texas)
8.85 million. Ratings have dropped since 2016 because the game’s popularity has dipped and the absence of both the Red Sox and Dodgers will hurt ratings again this year.