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As Josh Willingham, Joe Mauer and Chris Colabello posted a losing season, so did their TV ratings.

MARLIN LEVISON • mlevison@startribune.com,

Three years of losing costs Twins half their TV audience

  • Article by: Phil Miller
  • Star Tribune
  • November 9, 2013 - 6:27 AM

The Minnesota Twins’ TV ratings paid the price last season for the team’s third straight noncompetitive season.

More than half of the viewers who watched Twins games on Fox Sports North (FSN) in 2010, the team’s last winning season, have now tuned out, according to ratings compiled by the A.C. Nielsen company, sources with access to the numbers say.

The TV viewership of games has been eroded by 291 losses over three years. Roughly 73,000 households in the Twin Cities tuned in to an average Twins game in 2013, or fewer than half of the 152,000 that Nielsen estimates watched an average game in 2010. (To be fair, the 2010 season was unusually strong, given the team’s sixth Central Division title in a decade and especially its first season at Target Field.)

Still, the alarming slippage of the past two years slowed considerably in 2013. And even at this low ebb, the team’s local ratings, on a per-capita basis, remain just outside the top one-third in Major League Baseball (MLB).

“We did not see the large declines this season that other teams reported, which is good,” said Kevin Smith, the Twins’ senior director of broadcasting. “And we’re still [ranked] 11[th] nationally in per-game rating. We were actually ahead of half the teams in the playoffs, which is amazing. It’s a strong market.”

After losing 30,000 to 40,000 households in each of the past two seasons, the 2013 decline was closer to 6,000, or about 6.4 percent of the remaining audience. That suggests to Twins officials that their core fan base is hanging in there and that they may be poised for a turnaround on TV, once they show signs of one on the field.

“When we were winning, we were at the top of baseball,” Smith said, referencing the Twins’ standing as the second-highest-rated team in MLB, behind the Phillies, in 2010.

“Those numbers have settled down now, but we’ve sort of held steady at the top of the middle,” he said. “People still have curiosity about what’s going to happen every night, and winning will take care of a lot of things.”

It could be worse, after all.

The New York Yankees, operating in baseball’s biggest market, lost 111,000 viewers per night this year, a 31.2 percent plunge that left the partly team-owned YES Network with just 244,000 fans a night — about half of what they had in 2007.

The New York Mets lost 29 percent of their viewership last year, too, according to the New York Times.

Remarkably, the Houston Astros’ broadcast of a game with Cleveland on Sept. 22 registered a rating of 0.0. As far as Nielsen could tell, nobody watched.

The Twins, on the other hand, “were down a little, but not too much, and we had so many early-season games that were postponed or delayed by the weather, our numbers took a little bit of a beating. That didn’t help,” Smith said. “We’re energized by where we expect to go next year. We think the team will be better. We’ve added a new coach, and Fox keeps improving its production” through additions such as a super-slo-mo camera that was used for a few late-season games.

Revenue won’t suffer

The best news for the Twins: Unlike through-the-turnstile attendance at Target Field, the decline in TV ratings has virtually no effect on their bottom line. In fact, their income from television is about to take a large jump in 2014.

The increased revenue comes from MLB’s new national media contracts with ESPN, Fox and TBS, which agreed to payments totaling $12.4 billion over the next eight years, more than doubling their expiring contracts. That means the Twins, like the other 29 teams, will collect more than $50 million a year from the networks, instead of the roughly $25 million they took in this year.

And the great majority of Twins games televised by FSN? Those are covered by a contract whose length and value neither the Twins nor FSN will reveal, other than to say the team just finished its second season under it. But the contract, negotiated shortly after the franchise’s smashingly successful debut season in Target Field, has been rumored to pay anywhere from $25 million to $40 million per season.

Fangraphs.com pegs the amount at $29 million per season, a price the network largely recoups in subscriber fees charged to cable and satellite customers every month.

“There is money coming in from all directions, and those rates are locked in for the teams. In most cases, the contract durations have gotten so long, both sides know there will be ebbs and flows in the ratings, but over the long haul, baseball is a valuable property for the [regional sports networks],” said Maury Brown, who founded and operates the website bizofbaseball.com and covers the sport’s business interests for Forbes magazine. “In this age of the DVR, live sports offers the last bastion of a captured audience. It’s the one program that people want to watch live and that can deliver an audience for advertisers.”

That’s why teams like the Los Angeles Angels are cashing in on more than $140 million per season from their own regional sports network TV contract, the Texas Rangers will begin collecting $80 million per season in 2015 and the Los Angeles Dodgers are awaiting final approval of a contract that will pay them an incredible $280 million a year.

Under current terms, teams divvy up about one-third of that revenue with their MLB partners, but the numbers remain staggering — even when ratings and attendance do not.

The Twins have lost half of their TV audience since 2010, and they sell 23 percent fewer tickets than they did in Target Field’s first year — they averaged only 758 more fans per home game last year than in the Metrodome’s final season. But there is little doubt that the Twins — and the sport as a whole — remain profitable.

“There’s always going to be haves and have-nots, but there are some tremendous revenue streams right now, from networks to the [regional sports networks] to the advanced media,” which operate the game’s websites and facilitate digital streaming of TV and radio broadcasts, Brown said. “The Twins, with their history, strike me as a team that’s very well-positioned to capitalize, with a good market and history. They’ll bounce back.”

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