All-Star game ratings aren't sure home run

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When the American and National Leagues face off in Tuesday's Major League Baseball All-Star Game in New York, there will be fewer people watching than there were the last time Yankee Stadium was the host in 1977.

Gone are the days when the All-Star Game commanded double-digit household ratings. Last year's 8.4 household rating was about a third of its 24.5 rating 31 years ago. With the exception of the 2006 All-Star Game in Pittsburgh, which bucked the trend, the ratings have fallen since 2001.

That's the way it is for most of TV these days. But for the All-Star Game, one of the signature TV events of the summer, the ratings losses are particularly stark. Blame the TV landscape, interleague play, the fact there's plenty more baseball on TV and cable these days or even the fact that many of the recent games have been blowouts by the AL. There's also a lot more competition, albeit reality programming mostly, from broadcast and cable rivals. Whatever the reason, it adds up to diminished ratings.

"The All-Star Game used to be one of the highlights of television in the summer," baseball fan and Horizon Media researcher Brad Adgate said. "I don't think you can necessarily make that claim anymore. It's still relevant and it's a lot of fun." But there's no doubt, Adgate said, that it has lost much of the cachet it has enjoyed since the first one was dreamed up by a Chicago sportswriter in 1933.

But Major League Baseball has high hopes for this year's game, which will be played in the last year of one of baseball's most storied homes, Yankee Stadium. Several days of celebration kicked off this past weekend, with a free concert in Central Park by Jon Bon Jovi and continuing today with ESPN's telecast of the Home Run Derby and Tuesday's parade in Manhattan and the game itself. It's a big investment for MLB and Fox.

Fox Sports president Ed Goren said that the historic nature of this year's game — the last year in a fabled ballpark and the participation of almost every living Hall of Famer — makes it something special.

"The viewership for this All-Star Game is going to be sensational," Goren said.

What's also sensational is the ad sales, which recorded a double-digit increase in CPMs this year. The average 30-second spot goes for between $425,000 and $450,000 a throw. Some spots are going for $550,000 each and only one spot was left heading into the weekend. There is strong support from MLB's corporate sponsors, among other advertisers — something that other sports can't always claim.

It's true that baseball's All-Star Game still holds a special place in the summer. It's often still the most-watched program of the summer. It always finishes well above the ratings for similar all-star games in hockey, basketball and even football. And the declines the All-Star Game has seen in ratings isn't as stark when looking at what's happened in broadcast TV's big picture. Fox Sports vp research and programming Mike Mulvihill said that the ratings have been about 25% higher in any given season than the network season average going as far back as 1970 when it was a three-network universe.

"Compared to the three-network primetime average, the All-Star Game holds up as well today in relative terms as it did 20, 30, 40 years ago," Mulvihill said. "Relative to the environment, it's just as strong today as it has ever been."

Horizon Media's Adgate thinks that the Home Run Derby, which airs tonight on ESPN, also is siphoning off viewers that usually would have been watching the game. ESPN began televising the derby in 1992, going live with it starting in 1997.

Len DeLuca, ESPN's senior vp programming and acquisitions, thinks the derby's much more than an excuse to get host Chris Berman on the field. ESPN dropped its part of the MLB postseason package but made sure it kept the derby.

"It's regularly part of our summer mantra, one of the highest, if not the highest-rated shows in cable in July," DeLuca said.

MLB and Fox have worked together to try to stem the ratings loss, to mixed results. Those efforts intensified after 2002, when the game ended in a tie after one of the teams ran out of players. MLB came up with a new plan to reinvigorate the game, and have it mean something. That led to the winning league gaining home-field advantage at the World Series, as well as adding other flourishes like an all-star parade and red carpet.

While the game isn't just an exhibition anymore, the ratings haven't really followed suit. It hit an all-time low of 8.1 in 2005 before recovering a bit in 2006 and then falling again in 2007. That doesn't mean, however, that Fox is ruing its investment in the All-Star Game. Quite the contrary.

"We're not disappointed in the viewership and the ratings for the All-Star Game," Fox's Goren said. "If you ask sports fans, one of their most memorable all-star events of any sport, has to be the All-Star Game in Boston in 1999." The pregame ceremony at Fenway Park honored Ted Williams. Goren thinks that that's just a warm-up for Tuesday.

"This one will outdo the Ted Williams game," Goren said. "Baseball has organized this phenomenal weekend." (partialdiff)
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