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All-Star Game a ratings game: Three reasons slumping viewership is cause for concern

In 1986, Tim McCarver worked his first MLB All-Star game as an analyst for ABC. Pairing with Al Michaels and Jim Palmer, the game did a 20 rating with a 35 share. An average of nearly 30 million viewers tuned in to watch the American League’s 3-2 victory in Houston.

Fast forward to Tuesday night in New York. McCarver will call his 22d and final All-Star game, this time working with Joe Buck at Fox.

Depending on the quality of the game, there’s a strong possibility Fox’s rating could be one-third of what it was for McCarver’s first All-Star game in 1986.

Now let’s not get into a prolonged discussion on how the TV landscape has changed since the 80s. In 1982, 44 percent of U.S. televisions in use were tuned into the All-Star game on that night. The all-time high was a 53 share in 1976.

OK, those days are long gone. However, this is about recent history. Last year’s game in Kansas City did a 6.8 rating with a 12 share. The game averaged nearly 11 million viewers.

The TV numbers were the worst in All-Star Game history. They are off sharply since the ’08 game in Yankee Stadium, which did a 9.3 rating, 16 share, and an average of 14.5 million viewers.

Since then:

2009: 8.9 rating, 15 share, 14,610,000 viewers.

2010: 7.5, 13, 12,100,000

2011: 6.9, 12, 11,000,000

2012: 6.8, 12, 10,900,000

So what’s going on? Why the major tune-out for the Mid-Summer Classic?

During a conference call with reporters last week, Eric Shanks, Fox Sports’ co-president, tried to put on a positive spin despite the recent declining numbers.

Problem? What problem?

“The Mid-Summer Classic is still a jewel event,” Shanks said. “At Fox Sports, we look at it as a part of our total baseball business. We still have a healthy local baseball business and very strong demand for our national business and strong demand for the All-Star Game. When you put it in context among all of the entertainment choices out there, this is the top end of the summer. Not just the All-Star Game, but baseball itself. The national game of the week on Saturday nights is winning the night against all networks.  I feel that it’s very healthy.”

Healthy, though, is a relative term. While Fox and MLB might not admit it publicly, a 25-30 percent drop in ratings for the All-Star Game has to be cause for concern.

I have three possible reasons:

It counts. So what?: After the 2002 debacle in Milwaukee, with the game ending in a 7-7 tie, MLB decided to increase the stakes for the All-Star Game. In 2003, home field advantage for the World Series goes to the winning league.

The game counts!

Did the move have the desired effect? In 2003, the game did a 9.5 rating, the same as 2002. In fact, it never got as high as that mark again, holding steady between 8.1 and 9.3 from ’04 through ’08.

You could counter that having the game count might have held off possible ratings erosion after the ’02 game. But it definitely didn’t spark a ratings windfall and it hasn’t prevented the recent slide.

Even though there is a prize at the end, the game still feels like an exhibition in the eyes of many viewers. Starters come out early; pitchers don’t go more than inning. No matter how hard they try, the intensity level isn’t the same.

Judging by the ratings, people aren’t tuning to see which league gets home field for the World Series.

Star vacuum: Fans tune in to watch big-name stars. Just ask the NBA about LeBron James.

Say what you will about the steroid guys, fans watched them play. Bonds, McGwire, Sosa, Clemens, ARod, etc.

Aside from the juicers, also gone are perennial big-name stars like Ken Griffey, Greg Maddux, and Cal Ripken Jr.

Who are fans tuning in to watch Tuesday? Miguel Cabrera is terrific, but he still doesn’t move the needle. Mariano Rivera will be a great story, but again how much will he impact the ratings?

The game is in a bit of transition now on the star front. Young players like Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper clearly are baseball’s future. But they haven’t established themselves yet as year-after-year superstars.

Fox’s Joe Buck agreed that there might be a bit of a star vacuum.

“Four guys are in this game that are 21 years old or younger,” Buck said. “Manny Machado is a kid. On a national level Manny Machado isn’t well known, yet he’s one of the best players in the game. We’ve had a bit of a changing of the guard and it’s going to take a little while for national audiences to know who these guys are and to get excited to watch them play in a game that doesn’t maybe affect their team locally.”

The good news, Buck notes, is that some of these young players are the most gifted and athletically talented to come around in a long time. So it bodes well for the future, although it might not help the ratings cause Tuesday.

It’s a baseball thing: Ratings have been down across the board for baseball. There are various reasons: a glut of national games during the regular season; a string of World Series lasting only four or five games, etc…

Assessing baseball’s popularity is complicated and too involved to explore in detail here. However, if you look at the recent ratings for the All-Star Game, it begs the question about whether it is a key barometer of the game’s overall health, at least in regards to TV.

Have viewers lost interest in the All-Star Game because they have lost interest in baseball? Sometimes, people speak with their remotes.

The wrap-up: Listen, Fox still will do a strong number Tuesday. The fact that the game is in New York will help the cause. More viewers from the nation’s No. 1 market are likely to tune in to see the big event taking place in their backyard.

It also will help Fox if there isn’t a 5-0 score after the first inning, as was the case last year when the National League jumped all over Detroit’s Justin Verlander. A good game goes a long way in generating ratings.

Baseball’s All-Star Game still is the best in sports, no question about it. But clearly, it isn’t what it once was, at least as far as the ratings are concerned.

And that’s compared to 2008, let alone McCarver’s first in 1986.

For more Ed Sherman on sport media, check out Shermanreport.com and follow@Sherman Report on Twitter.

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