Monday Night Football tackles Cliff Lee vs. Andy Pettitte

The premier TV sports matchup Monday is not the pairing of premier southpaws from the Rangers and Yankees, it's the ALCS against Monday Night Football.

By , Staff writer

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    Texas Rangers' Cliff Lee pitches during the second inning against the Tampa Bay Rays during Game 5 of baseball's American League Division Series, Oct. 12, in St. Petersburg, Fla. On Monday night, Cliff Lee, who is 6-0 in post-season appearances, plays against the New York Yankees' Andy Pettitte.
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On Monday night, national television is bringing sports fans one of the classic matchups.

But it’s not the pairing of two premier southpaws, the Texas RangersCliff Lee, who is 6-0 in post-season appearances, against the New York YankeesAndy Pettitte, who has won more post-season games (19) than anyone in history.

No. It’s Monday Night Football against Monday night baseball.

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The head-to-head matchup has sports bloggers and analysts frothing.

“There are probably more Yankee fans than Titan and Jaguar fans combined,” says professional baseball blogger Matthew Cerrone in an email. “It’s simple, Andy Pettitte and the Yankees against Cliff Lee and the Rangers is significantly more entertaining and dramatic fun than [the Tennessee] Titans vs. [the Jacksonville] Jaguars, who are just two average football teams.”

Football blogger Jason Maloni says he doesn’t think the NFL is worried. “The story lines in football are vivid and apparent and more easily discernible than the story lines in baseball,” says Mr. Maloni, who is head of sports and entertainment at Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis management firm, in Washington. “Football is like pizza – when it’s great, it’s awesome, and even when it’s not, it’s pretty good.”

Normally, the two professional sports try not to compete against each other. Last year, for example, the Philadelphia Phillies hosted a World Series game in the evening after the Eagles trounced the New York Giants.

“This year, both baseball and football knew the schedule, and nobody blinked,” Maloni says.

Part of the problem for baseball is the difficulty of taking Mondays off in order not to compete with football. Major League Baseball is already criticized for starting the post-season so late, players run the risk of throwing snowballs instead of baseballs.

“There are only so many delays you can enact,” says Patrick Rishe, a contributor to the SportsMoney blog on Forbes.com and an associate professor of economics at Webster University in St. Louis, Mo.

It’s easy to understand why Monday Night Football is willing to give a straight-arm to baseball.

So far this year, Monday Night Football is averaging a 9.6 Nielsen rating and 15.2 million viewers. By way of contrast, after two games in both the American League and National League championship series, MLB is averaging a 4.3 rating and 6.97 million viewers.

“I would say Monday Night Football is by far and away one of the singular largest brands in television sports,” says Mr. Rishe. “It’s the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports.”

One major wild card in favor of the football game is the growing popularity of Fantasy Football, in which people form their own teams from active players. “Some guys who may not have a rooting interest may watch the game to see how their fantasy picks do,” says Rishe who notes that football also generates about twice as much gambling in Las Vegas as baseball. Baseball’s fantasy season has pretty much ended.

However, despite the fantasy factor, Rishe says he thinks the ALCS baseball game may “narrow the gap” between the two protagonists.

That’s because the Yankees and Rangers have each won one game in the best-of-seven series. The sports airwaves have been full of stories about how Mr. Lee, the Rangers pitcher, is unflappable and unhittable.

He will face Mr. Pettitte, who has not pitched in 11 days and is still recovering from an injury. Pettitte, in interviews on Sunday, said he was hopeful that despite all the time off, “that you go out there and you find your rhythm early in the game and can hold it.”

It’s the kind of matchup that sometimes results in surprises.

Ratings for the game might actually be somewhat lower in the New York area because of a dispute between Cablevision and the Fox Network. Fox is asking for more money for its shows, which include football and the World Series. On Sunday, for example, subscribers to Cablevision could not see the New York Giants game or the NLCS game pitting the Phillies against the San Francisco Giants.

“Fan Fury,” headlined the New York Daily News, which noted Monday that bars were filled with fans who watched the game on satellite TV. The paper noted that both companies are trying to get angry subscribers to blame the other company.

“In the end, we know it’s about money and that when they work out their disagreement, the fan will not see a dime, and the quality of product will not improve,” writes Mr. Cerrone.

It could be worse – Fox is supposed to broadcast the World Series, which starts on October 27th. Unless the two sides come together, some 3 million customers – and maybe their children – may have to watch the games in places that have stuffed fish on the walls and lots of neon signs advertising beer.

If the World Series gets as far as Game 5, it will create another conflict with Monday Night Football. That match-up might be more compelling for sports fans: Pittsburgh at New Orleans.

“Pittsburgh is one of the three most popular teams versus a city that is everyone’s underdog,” says Maloni. “There will be far more interest than a World Series game.”

Even Cerrone, who writes the baseball blog, Metsblog.com, is ready to throw in the towel for that night.

“Now you're talking two top-rated football teams, in the second half of the season, going against a Game 5 (of seven) in the World Series. In that case, the NFL could return to being the more entertaining match up,” says Cerrone.

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