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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

Can baseball return to being nation’s No. 1 sport?

Fireworks are seen over Progressive Field before Game

Fireworks are seen over Progressive Field before Game 1 of the Major League Baseball World Series between the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs Tuesday, Oct. 25, 2016, in Cleveland. Credit: AP / Gene J. Puskar

Alex Rodriguez has a history of inaccurate public utterances, but in this case you have to admire the guy’s spunk, and his loyalty to a game that made him rich and famous.

Last week the Fox analyst predicted baseball will be the No. 1 sport in America again “sometime soon.” That echoed what he said in June, the day after Game 7 of the NBA Finals drew massive, NFL-style ratings.

“I’m making a prediction in the next five to 10 years we’ll become No. 1 again,” he said then. “I really feel that way.”

Hey, stranger things have happened. But given the older-skewing demographics of baseball fans and other objective metrics . . . um, no, at least not on a national level for what mostly is a localized attraction.

Still: Give baseball its due, and its moment. Just when our testy nation needed a group hug in advance of a certain election next week, the national pastime arrived with a warm and fuzzy story line that has resonated across party lines.

And, as a delicious bonus for seamheads, it came just in time to kick King Football while it was down.

Everyone expected better-than-usual ratings for the Indians-Cubs World Series, with a combined 176-year championship drought that drew the attention even of casual sports fans.

But Sunday was the big payoff (so far), when Game 5 averaged 23.6 million viewers on Fox, the most for a Game 5 since 1997 and the most for any kind of baseball game since Game 7 in 2011.

Meanwhile, an entertaining “Sunday Night Football” game on NBC between the Eagles and forever-telegenic Cowboys trailed badly with 18 million.

The rare ratings victory for baseball over football was the latest bit of dispiriting news in a year in which NFL viewership for its prime-time packages has dropped alarmingly.

Theories abound, including the distraction of the election, penalty-and-replay filled games, uninspiring teams and matchups, national anthem protests and over-saturation.

Coming next autumn: Titans-Jaguars, live from Guam at 6 a.m. Eastern Time to start your NFL quintupleheader!

A caveat: Ratings figures when major sports events go head-to-head should be taken with a grain of salt, given how many people simply flip back and forth between the two.

It is a fair bet that even baseball fans sneaked peaks at the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott while trying to stay awake waiting for the next Aroldis Chapman strikeout to unfold in another way-over-three-hours World Series game.

But like it or not, Nielsen’s flawed, widely misunderstood estimates remain the coin of the realm in the sports TV business, and our best objective measure to gauge relative interest.

And Sunday only was a prelude to the big World Series payoff to come.

Game 6 on Tuesday night is certain to blow past the 20-million-viewer mark again and drag the overall Series average over 20 million for the first time since the Red Sox ended their 86-year drought in 2004.

So far the five games have averaged 19.3 million viewers and 11 percent of homes, tiny compared to the glory days of the past century but good for recent times. (New York has averaged 10.5 percent of homes, 30th among 56 major markets measured.)

And a Game 7 in Cleveland Wednesday just might beat the nearly 31 million who watched the Cavaliers shock the Warriors in the NBA’s Game 7 in June.

Hmm. Was A-Rod onto something . . . ?

New York Sports