Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Everybody Is Uninterested in a Star

Fewer people watched the 2014 All-Star Game on TV last night than did in 2013. I didn't say stop me if you heard this one because you have. Tweak the dates, and that sentence has been true since about 1989.

All-star games are becoming to sports television what Tuesday night at 10 p.m. is to ABC. It's where audiences go (or don't go) to disappear. Fewer people watch the NHL and NBA All-Star Games than they used to as well. Much fewer, in fact, roughly half of what the audiences were two decades ago. As for the Pro Bowl, well, if it was a moneymaker, Roger Goodell wouldn't have threatened to abolish it a few seasons back.

So there's hope for American sports after all. The normal fan is not yet so far gone as to have lost the uses of their five senses plus common sense. Each of those has a simple explanation as to why All-Star games are losing viewers in droves. All-Star games suck. They are cruel clumsy parodies of the team sports in which the All-Stars themselves excel.

Older sports commentators will tell you that baseball has the "best" of the four All-Star games. That may have been true when Ted Williams and Stan Musial were the annual fixtures on the American and National League teams but not anymore. Now it's a more of a game show than a game, a contest to maximize the number of participants and an exercise in internal marketing, such as Cardinals manager making Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright the NL starter, or John Farrell yanking Felix Hernandez after one inning to trot John Lester out there. I'll bet that really helped ratings in Seattle.

Oh, I almost forgot. There's external marketing, to. Baseball used one of the very few times it has the stage to itself anymore to hawk dry goods. What I'll remember of the 2014 All-Star Game isn't Derek Jeter, it's the ghastly fashion war crimes they made the players wear on their heads. Way to stress the tradition of the Game, gang. Give everybody a hideous new cap.

The other three sports all have the same basic All-Star game issue. Since there's no reason to care who wins (meet any diehard AFC or Western Conference fans lately when you hit the bars, the players don't either. They go have fun, which is nice for them, but kind of counter to the idea of pro sports, which is both far better and much worse than mere fun.

Fans, being sometimes foolish but rarely fools, know all this perfectly well. So they don't watch all-stars -- with a few significant exceptions.

Ratings for the just-completed World Cup were very strong. They were for the Olympic hockey tournament, too. Those competitions are exclusively composed of all-star teams. What else is a national sports team?

National sports teams, however, are All-Star teams with the one element most such teams lack -- rooting interest. Patriotism makes fans from Shanghai to Stoughton care what happens to them, so they take the time and trouble to watch 'em on TV.

This strongly suggests that if  Bud Selig's successor wants to gin up July ratings, he should drop the All-Star Game and move a compressed version of  World Baseball Classic to that month. If the All-Star break lasted two weeks instead of three days, it'd be no loss at all. A Europe vs. North America NHL or U.S. vs. World NBA All-Star Game would also be more of a crowd pleaser than battles between conferences whose makeup changes frequently anyhow.  Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but it makes a dandy hideout for a desperate marketer.

The NFL lacks a significant foreign presence, so my thought won't help the Pro Bowl. Probably no amount of human imagination could.


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