CHICAGO/NEW YORK (Reuters) - What Fox Sports wants more than anything when it airs Major League Baseball's World Series starting this week is a competitive -- and long-lasting -- affair, the kind that draws maximum television ratings and advertising dollars.
While the championship matchup between the National League's Philadelphia Phillies and the American League's Tampa Bay Rays may not offer the appeal of teams from Boston, Los Angeles or Chicago, avoiding a short series is paramount for News Corp's Fox network, analysts and industry officials said on Tuesday.
"What gets overstated is the importance of the matchup and what gets understated is the importance of volume," Fox Sports spokesman Lou D'Ermilio said.
"If you're asking, would you rather have a four-game series between the (Boston) Red Sox and the (Los Angeles) Dodgers versus a seven-games series between the Phillies and the Rays? We'd rather take a seven-game series," he added.
While analysts said Fox, which has televised 10 of the last 12 World Series, would have preferred a final between the Red Sox and the Dodgers or Chicago Cubs, the bottom line is how many people watch overall and the ad revenue raised.
"When the World Series is going seven games, it can be the biggest story in sports. When it's a sweep, it's a little bit of a dog," said Jeff Gagne, a vice president with MPG North America, responsible for national sports negotiations. MPG is a media buying and planning division of France's Havas SA.
Analysts said Tampa, with a compelling story of going from the worst record in baseball last season to the finals this year, could draw even casual fans, should the series last seven games. The seventh game of the American League Championship Series between Tampa and the Red Sox on Sunday was the most watched baseball game in cable TV history.
A typical World Series game contains about 70 30-second ads, which this year will cost $400,000 apiece. That totals $28 million dollars a night, welcome money in a seven-game series.
Fox also expects its highest rated Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday nights on TV in at least five months thanks to the first three games in the series, while game four will likely be the highest-rated Sunday night since the National Football League's Super Bowl in February, D'Ermilio said.
TV ratings for the baseball championship have been trending down for the last several years, but three of the last four have been four-game sweeps, while the other ended in five games. A six-game series has not been played since 2003, while a full seven games was last seen in 2002.
TV ratings averaged 10.6 points in last year's World Series and 10.1 in 2006, according to Nielsen Sports Marketing Service. Since Fox first started airing the finals, the highest rated -- at 17.4 -- occurred in 1996, when the New York Yankees beat the Atlanta Braves in six games. A ratings point is a percentage of U.S. television households that watched the game.
"If this series can get to six or seven games, then I think it will do considerably better than the last two," said Neal Pilson, head of his own sports consulting firm and the former president of CBS Sports. "If it's four and out, you're probably going to see numbers similar to what you had before."
While TV ratings are down for the World Series, they are also down for all TV, as the viewing audience has splintered with the explosion of choices on cable networks.
"If the series goes six or seven games, it could be the most watched World Series in several years in terms of total viewership," D'Ermilio said. "To our business, total viewership is more important than average viewership."
In the late 1980s and late '90s, the World Series was more popular than the combined average ratings for prime time programs by 67 percent and 78 percent, respectively, he said. That advantage was 77 percent the last two years.
"It's still the World Series and will do a quality rating no matter who is on," said Michael Law, a vice president and group director at Carat, a media buying and planning division of advertising company Aegis Group Plc.
"The reality is you are going to get four nights of a 10 rating, and that's sizable in this marketplace," he said.
Editing by Gerald E. McCormick