By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
4:16 PM EDT, June 22, 2013
Nationally, the highest-rated shows among young adults in April and May were “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS, “Modern Family” on ABC and “The Voice” on NBC.
But in Baltimore, those viewers preferred a different show: Baltimore Orioles telecasts on MASN.
When Jim Palmer and Gary Thorne can trump Blake Shelton and Sofia Vergara, maybe there really is “Orioles magic.”
Since the Orioles started playing never-say-die comeback baseball the second half of last season, TV viewing has spiked. In 2011, O’s telecasts on MASN ranked 18th in ratings among the teams in Major League Baseball. So far this season, they rank fifth, and have had an 86 percent jump in ratings since 2011.
Those numbers represent not only interest from fans, but also good business news for MASN, the regional sports network broadcasting Orioles and Washington Nationals games, and its advertisers.
“Even through the lean years, O’s viewership was always respectable. But you could really begin to see the groundswell of support building steadily last season, and it has just kept growing,” MASN senior vice president John McGuinness said. “I would not be surprised to see our audience grow another 10 to 15 percent from now until the end of this season.”
It’s not unusual for winning teams (and regional sports networks) to see ratings grow in summer, when traditional network programming moves to reruns. But in Baltimore, Orioles telecasts were No. 1 during the pull-out-all-the-stops May sweeps period with viewers 18 to 34 and 18 to 49 years old, the demographics most favored by advertisers. Among sports media analysts contacted for this article, none could name a similar instance this season in any other city.
The obvious explanation is the kind of winning baseball the Orioles are playing. Last year, they appeared in the postseason for the first time since 1997; this year, they are in second place behind the Boston Red Sox.
Andrew Stetka has long been a fan of O’s baseball on TV, but this year he finds himself “watching every game.” And he rates the experience “outstanding,” pointing to the leadership of manager Buck Showalter.
“Since Showalter has taken over the team, there’s a different feel, a different swagger. It makes the fans believe they can beat anyone,” he said.
But advertisers and ad agency buyers say there’s more to the TV success than that.
They like the team’s overall youth and the sense of optimism it generates — saying they believe viewers come to associate those positive attributes with their products. And they love the nail-biting, comeback wins that keep viewers tuned in for nine innings of action — and commercials.
“I think the feeling of this team is very optimistic and exciting,” said Barry Tate, executive vice president of Tate Dodge Chrysler Jeep. “And if they’re exciting on the field, then people will get excited about whatever you put on with that team as well.”
Kevin Kempske, partner in Baltimore’s GKV advertising agency, which places several of its clients on MASN, added, “They’re winning games in the bottom of the ninth or the bottom of the eighth, or the top of the 10th if they’re on the road. Whatever it is, they just don’t give up. And as a result, viewers are watching from inning one through inning nine, as opposed to just watching the first few innings, turning it off and putting something else on if the Orioles look like they’re not in the game.”
MASN wouldn’t release booking data or commercial rates, but inventory appears to be tightening. As a buyer, Kempske sees the improved ratings already translating into advertising dollars for MASN.
“We did notice an average rate increase, year over year, for the O’s telecast,” he said. “We have also noticed a tightening in the supply of spots available. More marketers are ‘getting into the game,’ which is selling out the inventory.”
The O’s fervor extends to more pageviews for sports media and rising ratings for WBAL Radio during its Orioles broadcasts.
“Last year there was rapid improvement in the ratings, and they continue to rise,” said Dave Hill, program director for the station.
Though TV ratings have grown in all segments, they are most marked among younger viewers. Advertisers point to the persona that the team’s young stars — centerfielder Adam Jones, first baseman Chris Davis and third baseman Manny Machado — has developed not only on the field, but also in the community and social media.
“We’re doing a promotion this year with Adam Jones, and I think he’s indicative of the kind of thing that makes advertising with the team attractive,” said Mike Sullivan, spokesman for CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield.
“He’s a guy who’s active himself in social media. He signed a long-term contract when he could have opted to go elsewhere. He bought a home here. And I think that’s attractive to fans — it really strengthens the local tie-in. And it’s appealing to us as well. You have people like Adam Jones who are trying to really connect with the community, which is something that we’re trying to do, too.”
There’s an element, too, of expanding on tradition and the team’s history.
Richard Israel, of Annapolis, has watched and listened to Orioles’ games all of his adult life.
“But it’s certainly fair to say I’m watching more games to the end this year,” he said. “Winning feels better. O’s games are the rhythm of summer. It used to be radio; now it’s TV.”
“Advertising on Orioles telecasts was a terrific way for PNC when it entered this market to become known and associated with a very strong hometown franchise,” said Laura Gamble, regional president for PNC Financial Greater Maryland. “I mean, the Orioles just have that place in everybody’s heart as the hometown team.”
The telecast itself also stands out in some ways. Jim Palmer has drawn attention as perhaps the best analyst working on any regional sports network in the country.
And broadcasters maintain a high energy level even as they’re plowing through ad copy, Kempske noted, pointing to a promotion for the Maryland Lottery’s 5 Card Cash. Advertisers like that kind of energy.
“The announcers could simply read the scripts, but they’re really helping generate excitement on the part of the advertiser with the way they’re reading them,” he said. “And that appeals to us.”
Advertisers even like Showalter when it comes to pre- and postgame interviews. They believe his work as an ESPN analyst helped make him one of the more media-savvy managers in the game.
MASN’s McGuinness looks like he could be right in his prediction about O’s ratings continuing to grow this summer if they continue to win. After the May sweeps, the channel’s telecast of an O’s- Red Sox game June 18 drew more viewers in Baltimore than Game 4 of the epic NBA playoff finals between the San Antonio Spurs and Miami Heat.
“We’ve been with the Orioles for quite a long time,” Tate said of his car dealership. “They told us during the times when they weren’t so exciting on the field that if we stayed with them, we’d ultimately get a bang for our buck. And I have to say, for us they’ve definitely kept that promise.”
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