The trend is clear and perhaps irreversible: Baseball’s All-Star Game is doomed to be seen by fewer people with each passing July.
The sluggers’ reality show known as the Home Run Derby may soon overtake it as a television event.
The Derby is guaranteed to have home runs, and lots of them. The All-Star Game is not. Three of the past five All-Star Games had none. In all, 178 home runs have been hit in the All-Star Game, according to Baseball-Reference.com, a collection that began with Babe Ruth’s in the third inning of the inaugural 1933 game. Memories still linger over those hit by Reggie Jackson, Stan Musial, Ted Williams and Johnny Callison.
More than home runs, what made baseball’s All-Star Game resonate so much over the decades was its credibility. It closely resembled a regular-season game, with the players on each team clearly wanting to win. They played defense. They played for their leagues, which meant something more than it does today. The game was also a refreshing novelty, letting fans see players they would not normally see in their home stadiums or on television. But that was before the glut of locally and nationally broadcast games and before interleague play, which eroded any real distinction between the leagues.
No one said baseball shouldn’t evolve or make billions of dollars in television deals, but the specialness of the best all-star game in sports has become a victim of those changes.
The evolution has left baseball with a not-very-special July exhibition in which, it seems, managers try to please fans of every team by inserting every player into the game.
Now, in the so-called post-steroid era, power and run production are ebbing, and pitching’s dominance is rising.
The past two All-Star Games were shutouts, with no home runs hit in last year’s 3-0 victory by the American League. The National League won, 8-0, two years ago.
The All-Star Game attracted 22 million viewers 20 years ago. Last year, it attracted 10.95 million viewers, the second fewest recorded by Nielsen, and smaller than the audience for many episodes of “The Walking Dead’’ on AMC in 2013, as well as one episode of “Duck Dynasty’’ on A&E that same year. The record low measured by Nielsen occurred in 2012, when the game drew 10.89 million viewers.
Somehow, in the past four years, the NFL’s Pro Bowl has had more viewers than baseball’s All-Star Game.
The Pro Bowl is usually a laughable affair in which the absence of defense is part of its fabric. But in January, the Pro Bowl generated 11.4 million viewers playing an ersatz game where kickoffs were eliminated, the play clock was shortened, bump-and-run coverage was allowed and two-minute warnings were added to the first and third quarters. Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice held a two-day draft to select the roster, which gave new meaning to trash programming.
The score, 22-21, was surprisingly low, but then so was the quality of play. Yet in the week before the Super Bowl, fans might be willing to watch anything the NFL serves.
The NBA All-Star Game is a whoop-de-do cavalcade of scoring — last year’s final was 163-155 — but its viewership has slid from 13.1 million in 2002, its final February with NBC, to 7.5 million on TNT; the NHL version, which has employed some tinkering in how the teams are chosen, registered only 1.3 million viewers in its last go-round in 2012, far below its high of 6.5 million in 1996.
Baseball has not toyed with the rules of its game to create a dubious version of itself for the All-Star Game. But it has had its share of minor controversies: the extra-innings tie declared by Commissioner Bud Selig in 2002; and the mixed decision, starting in 2003, to assign home-field advantage for the World Series to the league that wins the All-Star Game.
The Home Run Derby is more of a cacophony of wood. A modern ancestor of the 1960 black-and-white program filmed at Wrigley Field in Los Angeles, the Derby has become a pageant of pure power from the likes of Yoenis Cespedes, Prince Fielder, Josh Hamilton, Robinson Cano and David Ortiz. It has also become a bloated form of entertainment in the hands of ESPN, with the incessant “back-back-backs’’ of Chris Berman and the presence of so many correspondents that you’d think the network was covering an invasion. But it works because it is comfort food — dozens of home runs are swatted in a few hours; cameras are positioned close to the players; you can hear them speak and see how much fun they’re having.
Between 1995 and 2013, viewership for the Derby has risen, not fallen, with peaks and valleys in between. In 1995, 4.6 million viewers watched; the show hit its peak in 1998, the celebrated year of drug-inflated home run production, with 9.17 million viewers. In the past few years, it has attracted 6.4 million to 6.8 million viewers.
With power scarcer in real baseball like the All Star-Game, it seems that Giancarlo Stanton and Yasiel Puig hitting one Derby ball after another moonward on one Monday night a year looks mighty enticing.