Few household names on the field at 2010 World Series

by Rachel Cohen
AP Sports Writer

NEW YORK (AP)—Their games often end way past bedtime for most of the nation. The biggest names linked to them—Nolan Ryan, George W. Bush, Willie Mays and Barry Bonds—won’t be on the field.

And yet the World Series matchup of Texas and San Francisco could be intriguing, despite what all the TV ratings people say. If only fans around the country knew these two teams better.

ON THE BIG STAGE—Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington responds to a question during a news conference before team practice for the World Series, Oct. 24, in Arlington, Texas. The Rangers reached the World Series for the first time in their 50 years as a franchise by beating the New York Yankees 6-1 Oct. 22 to win the American League Championship Series. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The World Series opens today with story lines to spare but not a lot of household names, putting it in danger of drawing some of the lowest television ratings in its history.

The Rangers have MVP candidate Josh Hamilton, who overcame substance abuse. Giants ace Tim Lincecum was his league’s best pitcher two years running.

Texas has never been to the World Series. The Giants last won it in 1954—before they left New York for San Francisco.

It’s the reality of baseball in the 21st century: Some teams lure the viewers, and some don’t. A Philadelphia-Tampa World Series in 2008 set a record low. A year later, with the New York Yankees replacing the Rays as the Phillies’ opponent, the average rating jumped nearly 40 percent.

“The whole world wanted to see the Phillies and Yankees in the World Series,” Giants first baseman Aubrey Huff said after his team won the National League pennant. “But you know what? It’s time for new blood.”

Fox Sports Vice Chairman Ed Goren, whose network televises the series recalled the refrain of baseball fans just over a decade ago: “The Yankees just bought another World Series.”

“For years, fans said, ‘We want parity,’” Goren said Monday on a conference call. “Well, you got it.”

He noted that in the last six World Series, the only team to appear more than once was the Phillies in 2008 and ’09. While Goren expressed the required confidence of a TV executive that this matchup would fare just fine in the ratings, he acknowledged that it took longer for fans to warm up to teams they were less familiar with.

MLB almost got a rematch of that enticing pairing this season. Instead, Texas and San Francisco pulled upsets in the League Championship Series.

If the Yankees or Red Sox or Cubs or Dodgers are in the World Series, there’s a hook for casual fans from the start. Networks need competitive games and long series for viewers to be lured in when the teams lack national followings.

“Initially, it’ll be lower, I would think,” Goren said. “As a series builds, you get to six or seven games, you’ll be fine.”

While both teams are in sizable markets—Dallas-Fort Worth ranks fifth and the Bay Area is sixth, according to Nielsen—they play many of their games in the Pacific time zone and they are rarely on national television.

When Barry Larkin went home to Orlando, Fla., in seasons that his Cincinnati Reds missed the playoffs, the All-Star shortstop saw just how much the identity of the teams swayed interest in the World Series. With no home team to root for, Orlando residents were intrigued only by a few clubs that were from the region, generated national appeal or had a minor-league affiliate nearby.

“When those teams were involved, there was much more of a buzz in that area,” said Larkin, who retired in 2004 and now works as an analyst for MLB Network. “When they were not, it was so obvious that people could care less.”

Larkin, who won a World Series in 1990, believes players such as Lincecum and Hamilton lack the star power to attract casual fans despite their dominant statistics.

“I think they are not because of the way baseball markets its players,” Larkin said. “It markets its teams as opposed to marketing players.”

A player like Derek Jeter is far more famous for winning championships with the Yankees than for his batting average or home runs.

“Individually you get recognition within the team concept,” Larkin said.

Casual fans tuning in to this World Series may be more likely to recognize Texas’ current owner Nolan Ryan, or the 43rd president, the team’s former owner. Mays and Bonds may outshine the current Giants from the stands.

In 2002, while Bonds was still playing for San Francisco, the Giants and Angels met in the World Series and even went the full seven games. They still averaged what at the time was a record-low rating.

About 3 million cable TV subscribers in the New York area—out of the nation’s nearly 115 million homes with televisions—won’t even be able to watch the World Series unless Fox and Cablevision settle their dispute. Goren called the effect “nominal.”

Fox play-by-play announcer Joe Buck jokes that he visits Dallas nearly every week during NFL season to call Cowboys games. The network has never sent him to Texas to cover a Rangers game, proving it’s not just about market size but the marketability of certain teams.

Buck expects to spend a lot of time educating fans about Rangers manager Ron Washington’s admission of cocaine use and Giants closer Brian Wilson’s beard.

“You can’t assume everybody knows all about that to a national audience,” he said.

If the series just goes long enough, he hopes those fans have enough time to learn to love these two unfamiliar teams.

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