The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is the best played of any all-star game in professional sports. It is the only one that closely resembles real competition because it is the only one that provides actual defense. The one being played tonight in Kansas City seems especially appealing because it includes four of the biggest drawing cards in the game, all of whom are first-time All-Stars playing their first full season in the bigs: Bryce Harper, 19, Mike Trout, 20, Stephen Strasburg, 23, and Yu Darvish, 25. The faces and the stories are fresh.
The night begins with Justin Verlander, 29, of Detroit against Matt Cain, 27, of San Francisco in the first All-Star matchup of pitchers with no-hitters since David Wells and Randy Johnson started the 2000 game. Verlander and Cain already are franchise icons, having pitched only for the team that drafted them and will do so through at least 2014 (Verlander) and 2017 (Cain). They are just two of 40 All-Stars who have played exclusively for their original team, a key element for a sport that relies so heavily on its regional roots.
Everybody knows the American League is the superior league. It won the interleague competition for a ninth straight year, doing so with its third-best winning percentage (.563). But for one night the National League can be better, and thus grant one of its teams -- and for the first time, possibly even a third-place team -- the homefield advantage in the World Series, an idea that must be a good one because so many people get their shorts bunched over the thought of it.
Baseball has a great product to sell. Attendance is up six percent, long-dormant franchises in Washington, Baltimore and Pittsburgh have life, franchise values and regional sports network fees have skyrocketed and TV networks are lining up to bid on the next national television package, which begins in 2014. But the question for one night that must scare MLB right down to its rubber pill core is this: How many of you are buying the product tonight?
Never before has the television rating for the All-Star Game declined for a fourth straight year, but the game rides a record-tying three-year losing streak into this one. (The only other occasion of three straight declining ratings occurred from 1995-97, the first three games after the 1994-95 players' strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series.)
Ominously, the game is being played in Kansas City, the 31st-ranked Designated Market Area as ranked by Nielsen. The Kansas City television market is smaller than Nashville or Hartford and includes 871,590 fewer TV households than Phoenix, which last year hosted the game that hit an all-time low rating of 6.9. The smaller the host DMA, the less the local rating helps the national rating.
How important are ratings anyway? And what, if anything, do declining ratings for the All-Star Game tell us about the state of baseball? About the All-Star Game itself? About the players? About World Series homefield advantage being on the line? The answers are more complicated than you might think. To try to make some sense of this changing sports world, here are some myths and truths about the All-Star Game.
Myth: Bud Selig put World Series homefield advantage on the line at the All-Star Game to recover from the embarrassment of a tie game in Milwaukee at the 2002 All-Star Game.
Truth: In September 2000, Fox secured exclusive rights to MLB's All-Star Game, LCS and World Series for the next six years -- and almost immediately expressed concern about the two-year decline in ratings for the All-Star Game. Fox began kicking around the idea of World Series homefield advantage with MLB officials well before the 2002 All-Star Game.
Myth: The World Series hook has done nothing for the ratings.
Truth: The ratings would be even worse without it and, more certainly, the game would be worse. Before 2003, you could have shot a cannon in the dugout after the sixth inning and not have hurt anybody -- that's how many players left the premises as soon as they came out of the game and high-tailed it to their private jets. It wasn't unusual for All-Stars to watch the end of the All-Star Game at home.
The game had devolved into a glorified employee picnic softball game. Remember Barry Bonds lifting Torii Hunter on his shoulders after Hunter robbed him of a home run in 2002? Not exactly the way Pete Rose met Ray Fosse in 1970. Players stopped caring, so why would a fan care? Now at least players actually stick around for the game and care if their team wins. That makes for a better product.
Myth: Nobody watches the All-Star Game any more.
Truth: Let there be no doubt that there is serious slippage in the All-Star Game ratings. The game has set a record low 10 times in the previous 17 years. Baseball has to take ownership of that trend. But even lousy ratings need some context to understand what's going on.
Even with the decline, the All-Star Game typically is the highest rated television event of the summer in non-Olympic years. The Home Run Derby and All-Star Game sold out their inventory of ads weeks ago, with the game pulling in ads at prices of about $1 million a minute.
Getting 11 million viewers to tune in for a live event, as did the 2011 All-Star Game, still is a big victory in this fragmented, mobile, multi-platform entertainment-saturated, DVR-happy world -- a world that bears absolutely no resemblance to 1976, when the All-Star Game pulled in a record 36.3 million viewers.
And then there is this context provided by Broadcasting & Cable: The All-Star Game during the 2000s rated 30 percent higher than that night's average prime time ratings -- a bigger boost than the game delivered in the 1990s (27 percent) and 1980s (26 percent). So in a world where just about all ratings are declining, the All-Star Game remains a valuable premium product.
Myth: Baseball has the stage to itself for the Midsummer Classic.
Truth: Football never sleeps. It's impossible to underestimate how much football has taken over the sports consciousness, even in its so-called offseason, when sports talk radio kills entire shows with even more insipid versions of the can-Batman-beat-up-Superman debates. (Eli or Peyton? Sanchez or Tebow? Goodell or the Saints?) Gossip and conjecture rule the day in sports media. Baseball, which actually plays games every day, is cursed with a huge inventory of actual competition. (MLB.com gets its biggest traffic spikes leading up to the trading deadline, when it deviates and most allows for conjecture.)
The Pro Bowl is such a mockery of the actual sport of football that the NFL commissioner floated the idea of killing it. But football is so big that even a travesty version of it pulled in a big audience. The Pro Bowl, ghastly as it is, had more viewers than the All-Star Game in each of the past two years.
Indeed, those two years of ratings make the rise of football above baseball alarmingly clear. From 2009 to 2011, All-Star Game ratings went from 65 percent higher than the Pro Bowl to 12 percent lower. In those two years the All-Star Game lost 3.5 million viewers and the Pro Bowl picked up 4.6 million. It's no contest.
Myth: Fans want to see all players from all teams at the All-Star Game.
Truth: The All-Star Game has become bloated in an effort to appease all players and all fans. You know what I said about the All-Star Game most resembling championship competition? That may be true from pitch to pitch, but the way the game is administered and managed assures a more boring and manufactured product.
Last year there were 84 players named to the All-Star team. Eighty-four! Do you know how many actually played in the game? Sixty!
In 1976, 58 players were named All-Stars and 46 of them played in the game.
Do we really need 84 All-Stars and a game with 60 players? Of course not. It's pandering to the players association to get more players their bonus check for being named an All-Star and it's witless leadership by managers who should begin every All-Star meeting with the disclaimer, "Congratulations, but being named an All-Star does not guarantee playing time for everybody."
Here's a revolutionary idea: 30-man rosters for each team. Only one team gets a guaranteed roster spot: the host city. Not all players are guaranteed to get in the game. Big boy baseball.
Myth: The big markets are key for the ratings.
Truth: St. Louis (Nielsen DMA rank: 21) is the baseball capital of America. Since 2003, St. Louis has had the highest local ratings for the All-Star Game every year except one (2006, when host Pittsburgh was so excited to finally see actual live major league baseball that it took the top spot.) If it weren't for using the All-Star Game as leverage for teams to goose season ticket sales and sweeten stadium leases and construction projects, St. Louis would have an argument for hosting the All-Star Game every year -- MLB's mid-season Omaha.
Myth: Interleague play has been great for baseball.
Truth: Interleague play killed All-Star buzz more than anything else. The game was great as a dramatic presentation because of the mystery. Could Mantle hit Drysdale? Could Seaver blow it past Jackson? Could Schmidt take Clemens deep? The All-Star Game was about matchups that were only otherwise possible in a World Series.
Now the mystery is gone. The All-Star Game is just another interleague game. Cain has faced every AL starter at least three times except for Curtis Granderson.
Interleague play began in 1999. By the fourth year of it, 2000, the All-Star Game suffered its worst ratings loss ever, a 15.8 percent drop.
League identity and pride have diminished to next to nothing -- and just wait for realignment next season to finish off the job. Baseball unofficially moves to "conference" play with two 15-team leagues creating interleague series all season long.
Myth: The All-Star Game is just an exhibition.
Truth: The Home Run Derby is just an exhibition -- a gimmick. (By the way, here's one magic word to fix that interminable format: brackets. Forget leagues; we know they've been diminished. Seed the hitters and let 'em go at it one-on-one. Think of the office pools!)
The All-Star Game is both exhibition and real competition. Yes, it can be both. The game has meaning because of the World Series hook but managers do need to work around common sense restrictions on pitcher usage. Verlander, for instance, is not throwing 120 pitches tonight, folks.
The game still has a Technicolor spectacle to it, what with the different uniforms (another uniqueness among the major sports) and specialty spikes. It is still played at usual game speed, and with All-Stars such as Harper, Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Michael Bourn, baseball welcomes a faster, more athletic version of what we saw a decade ago.
And yes, the World Series carrot does add zest to the game, especially in a year when a second wild card has been added to each league, giving more teams and players a vested interest in the game's outcome. Only 14 of the 74 named All-Stars play for losing teams.
So go ahead, enjoy the game. The All-Star Game still is a genuine event at a time when the game is robust. But if you find you have better things to do, if you simply cannot miss America's Got Talent, well, just maybe baseball can't be blamed for that.