Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Video Killed the Radio Star and TV and Interleague Play Did in the All-Star Game

Everyone in the media continually tries to to figure out why the interest in Major League Baseball’s All-Star game has dwindled to the point that you wonder if it might not exist one day. The reasons why the ratings are at an all-time low are very apparent if you simply look at a few simple facts.

First though, let’s take a look at the ratings since 1967, as amassed by Baseball Almanac. From 1967-1980, the game averaged a 46.7 share of the television audience. The game averaged a 24.5 rating with the 1969 game the only time the share dipped below 20 during the period, and that occurred because the game was rained out the night before and was played the following afternoon.

Ratings began to decline over the next decade, though the share was still decent (36.8 avg) from 1981-1988. The ’81 All-Star game was the first game after a two month player’s strike interrupted the season. After the 1989 game, which had an 18.2 rating and 33 share, the game’s viewership steadily declined. The 2002 season saw the ratings drop below 10% for the first time. Last season saw an all-time lows of 6.8%, a 12 share, and 10.9 million viewers.

If you were a baseball fan in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the All-Star game and the post-season were the only times that you saw players like Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, and Jim Palmer unless they were on your team. Fans were also fans of the league their team was in-if you liked the Yankees or Mets, you rooted for the American or National League in the All-Star game and in the World Series.

The All-Star game was a happening that you looked forward to. When else could you see so many future Hall of Fame players, especially at one time. When I was growing up the NL dominated the game, so I was really into, hoping the AL would finally beat the hated NL. In 1971 it finally happened in Detroit when the AL's sluggers pounded the NL pitchers. The most memorable shot being Reggie Jackson's home run blast off the tower atop Tiger Stadium. The AL wouldn't win again until Fred Lynn's grand slam catupulted the junior circuit to a 13-3 win. 

The AL finally exacted vengance with 18 wins over the period from 1988-2009, but something had changed and the excitement was gone.

A Change in the Air

Perhaps the All-Star game television ratings might have leveled off had the player’s strike not occurred in August, 1994. The regular season was wiped out and the entire post-season was canceled in one fell swoop by MLB commissioner Bud Selig.  Baseball didn’t start up again until April 2, 1995. Some fans would never return to the ball park, others slowly made their way back. (The last game I attended before the strike was August 9, 1994 and I did not return to the ball park until July 30, 1998.) Either way the game was badly damaged.

From that moment on, viewership (slightly) increased  from one year to the next just four times to date. One rise (13%) occurred in 1998 when everyone was caught up in the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa steroid fueled chase of Roger Maris’ single season home run record.  The next increase came in 2001 (10%) when Barry Bonds was in a steroid fueled chase of McGwire’s 1998 home run record.

The third rise in the ratings was in the 2006 game in Pittsburgh (15%), presumably because of the ceremony that was held mid-game in memory of Roberto Clemente. The final increase in ratings came in 2008 when the Yankees held their final All-Star game in the old Yankee Stadium. Ratings (11%) had to be helped by Josh Hamilton’s monsterous home run derby performance the night before.

Television’s Role in Dimishing the All-Star Game's Draw

With no cable TV and teams not broadcasting all 162 regular season games, any time you could watch a game it felt like you won a prize. There was a weekly nationally televised game, but that was it.  Then cable television began to appear and the landscape of televised baseball changed forever.

More regular season out of market games started to be televised in the late 1970’s and then ESPN came into existence in 1979 with highlights and replays of baseball games like you had never seen before. The Connecticut based station started televising baseball games in 1990, so you no longer had to wait for the one national game of the week to be shown. 

Over the next two decades, the MLB Network would be launched, other cable outlets (e.g. TBS) began to broadcast games, you could add the MLB Extra Innings package to your cable or dish plan, and the official MLB site provided video and audio broadcasts.

Baseball games can be found all around the dial or the internet now, which means you can watch Miguel Cabrera or Mike Trout just about any time you want.

The Death Blow

One of the ideas Selig came up with to increase fan interest was the implementation of interleague play. While most fans seem to love it, or least like it, it was a tremendous blow to the All-Star game. What started out quietly in 1997 with opponents playing 15-18 games against the other league is now an every day occurrence in the Major Leagues. Why bother watching an All-Star game when you can see players from both leagues on any day or night on a number of different television stations.

Selig impacted the game again after the AL and NL played to a 7-7 tie in 2002.  To make the game more important, he decreed that home field advantage for the World Series would be determined by the league that won the All-Star game. Fans have laughed at the notion ever since. Selig basically kicked a man when he was already down.

Until someone figures out another way to bring excitement to the game, don't look for the ratings to be anything spectacular in the future. That is if the game still exists.

UPDATE - The 2013 game got an 8.1 national rating, which means there was increase from the prior year for just the fifth time since 1998. It was about a 20% boost from last year's game primarily due to Mariano Rivera and it being the first game at the Mets home field since 1964.

All-Star Game Television Ratings
Television Analysis & Ratings Breakdown
1967NBC25.65014,050,000Not Available
1968NBC25.84914,450,000Not Available
1969NBC15.1428,610,000Not Available
1970NBC28.55416,670,000Not Available
1971NBC27.05016,230,000Not Available
1974NBC23.44415,490,000Not Available
1981NBC20.13615,640,000Not Available

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