World Series in Prime Time

Profit Now Means Losses Later

Nobody's watching the great American pastime - at least that's what television ratings indicate. The average ratings for the first two games of this year's World Series between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks are even worse than last year's New York-only Subway Series, making this the lowest-rated World Series ever.

About 10 years ago, Major League Baseball playoffs were moved to prime time by TV networks hoping to increase advertising revenue. That means instead of catching a game at 6 p.m., viewers could not - and still cannot - start watching until around 8 p.m. The later start time has little effect on most adults, but has repeatedly drawn criticism from sports journalists who say that the networks are limiting access to the game by the viewers who matter most in the long term - children.

In a series of long, scoreless innings, adults have more patience and need less sleep, making it easier for them to put up with baseball's slow moments. But kids can't be expected to either stay up until midnight. Look at last year's World Series for a prime example of the difficulties created by the 8 p.m. start. The first game between the Yankees and the Mets, at four hours and 53 minutes, set a World Series record - for length. How many children can stay awake through nearly five hours of baseball that began at what would normally be bedtime, even if their parents let them?

More than a few hours of sleep, what they miss because of the delay are memories. Who could possibly forget Joe Carter's 1993 winning home run for the Toronto Blue Jays, one of only two in the history of the World Series, or the game-winning ball Carlton Fisk practically willed into fair territory during the Red Sox's 1975 playoff game against the Cincinnati Reds?

Great moments like these are what make kids join Little League in the first place, and what make them remain loyal to the sport long after they've hung up their junior cleats. Many of today's children don't have the sort of memories that would keep them interested past the seventh-inning stretch, or for that matter, induce them to watch even the first pitch.

The networks say an 8 p.m. EST time slot is beneficial for all viewers because it balance the interests of East Coast Yankees fans and West Coast Diamondback fans, who watch the games at 5 p.m. But if that's the case, then why has there been such a sharp decline in television ratings? They should realize that the slip is the result of a decade of neglecting the fans it will need most as their parents age and advertisers look to court the twentysomethings in hopes of attracting their substantial disposable income.

The effects go beyond diminishing TV ratings and falling advertising revenues. Little League participation is at an all time low. Apparently, it's in so much trouble that its best player is actually ineligible because his parents and coaches lied about his age. Instead, other activities such as soccer are filling the gap, making America's pastime a truly a past time.

Tuesday's return to Yankee Stadium, complete with an opening pitch by President Bush, should temporarily boost the game's ratings. But it's safe to say that a single image of Bush on the mound isn't going to inspire children to sign up for Little League next spring. The most logical course of action is to start the games at 7 p.m., which would allow all fans - West Coast and East Coast, adult and child alike - to continue to participate in the great American pastime, and cultivate a new generation of baseball fans and future consumers. In the choice between temporarily satisfying TV advertisers or cultivating future fans, there is no room for debate.