Heading into the World Series on Wednesday night, MLB is in a good position for once. The ALCS between the Tigers and Red Sox on Fox drew the best ratings for an LCS matchup since 2010's Giants-Phillies NLCS, averaging a 4.9 rating and 7.7 million viewers.
As for the NLCS on TBS, the Cardinals and Dodgers averaged a 3.2 rating and 5.0 million viewers, making it the second-best NLCS on TBS ever (considering TBS has only aired four NLCS matchups, it could be better).
But let's be honest for a minute - it won't take much for MLB to improve over last year's World Series. The Giants' four game sweep of the Tigers was the least-watched and lowest-rated World Series ever, averaging a 7.6 rating and 12.7 million viewers. But a competitive series this year could end up topping the Cardinals' seven game win over the Rangers in 2011 (which averaged a 10.0 and 16.6 million viewers) and challenging the Yankees-Phillies series in 2009 (11.7 rating, 19.4 million) because of a couple of factors.
First, the teams involved. In the last decade, the Cardinals have made three World Series appearances, while the Red Sox have made two. Of those four series (because one of them was against one another), none averaged less than a 10.0 rating or 15 million viewers. For a sport that has seen the Fall Classic fail to clear either of those benchmarks three times in the last five years, that's a good sign that a jump of 20-30% seems quite likely to be in the cards.
Secondly, the issue of competition. While football is king in this country, MLB was lucky to get a pair of teams in the World Series that aren't from cities that are furiously in love with the college game. Not only does Boston College stink, but they play at 3:30 on Saturday on ESPN3 - that won't exactly drive fans away. There's also the issue of St Louis' college fandom, which has best been described to me as "tepid." Sure, a top five Missouri team is playing at 7 PM on Saturday night against South Carolina, but there's not exactly a perfect overlap between the two fanbases. This isn't a situation like say, the Braves and Georgia or the Tigers and Michigan. The other national primetime games on Saturday are Oregon-UCLA and Penn State-Ohio State, neither of which will siphon much of an audience away from baseball. And hey, Fox has a solid college football lead-in of their own: Texas Tech vs Oklahoma. Every little bit helps.
Thirdly, The Shield. While both markets are NFL markets, the Patriots play at 1 PM on Sunday (if only it were on Fox instead of CBS), rendering them a non-factor in regards to World Series ratings. The primetime games this week include the Panthers and Bucs on Thursday, Packers and Vikings on Sunday, and (drum roll) Seahawks and Rams on Monday. While the Rams are in primetime and their contest with the Seahawks would be going up against Game 5 of the series, franchise quarterback Sam Bradford just had his knee blown out on Sunday, which essentially destroys the Rams' season. Local interest is likely going to dip as a result, and all should be well in the MLB world.
Speaking of the NFL, Fox has the rights to games in some big markets on Sunday - Dallas, Detroit, New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, Denver, and Atlanta are all going to be on Fox this weekend. That's another opportunity to relentlessly shill the World Series in case fans forgot about it and don't want to see the Packers take on a mediocre Vikings team.
When the Red Sox and Cardinals played in the 2004 World Series, they averaged a 15.8 rating and 25.4 million viewers. It was the highest-rated series since Braves-Yankees in 1999 (coincidentally, the last series to feature each league's top team squaring off), and the most-viewed since Braves-Indians in 1995 (which was the first World Series after the strike). No World Series that has aired on Fox has been able to eclipse the ratings and viewers for that 2004 World Series. While this one won't do as well because of the lack of a pesky curse, I wouldn't be at all surprised if the 2013 World Series took ratings back to where they were a decade ago - maybe something on par with 2002's Angels-Giants World Series, which averaged an 11.9 rating and 19.3 million viewers. And honestly, if that happened, MLB would be giddy.