Major League Baseball will hold its 86th annual All-Star Game tonight, and while its the longest-running and most-watched All-Star Game among the major sports, interest in the game has waned considerably over the last few decades. The game was once considered must-see TV for any hardcore baseball fan, and millions of casual fans tuned in as well. That hasn't been the case in more recent years, with television ratings a fraction of what they once were.
Interest was much higher back then for a number of reasons. First, the distinction between "American League fans" and "National League fans" was much more pronounced back then. Each league had its own separate office, with a League President who administered league matters like fines and suspension. Kansas City was an "American League" town, and we wanted to beat the National League dearly. The fact the National League dominated the All-Star Game for several years only added fuel to the fire.
Major League Baseball has since dissolved the league offices and blurred the line between the two leagues. Interleague play is a weekly staple. The Astros and Brewers have switched leagues. Free agency allows players to constantly jump back and forth between the leagues. Should the designated hitter rule ever become standardized, that will be the final nail in the coffin in the distinction between leagues.
Second, the All-Star Game was once a rare platform to showcase the league's best stars. Royals fans never got to see Tony Gwynn of the Padres, Ozzie Smith of the Cardinals, or Darryl Strawberry of the Mets, save for the occasional "NBC Game of the Week." Even American League stars were a bit of a novelty since only about 40 Royals games a year were televised.
Now, fans have access to every single game (subject to blackout rules of course). Highlights are available nightly on ESPN, Fox Sports One, and MLB Network, not to mention at the touch of a button online. Seeing players around the league is no longer a novelty.
Finally, there just weren't as many options on TV as there are now. In Kansas City in the 1980s, the All-Star Game was one of six options on TV (ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, and two independent stations that showed B-movies). Television ratings are down for virtually everything, except football. Fangraphs recently wrote that baseball is still performing about as well as it used to, compared to the top-rated show on television.
It seems unlikely any of those trends will be reversed, so can we ever expect the All-Star Game to be as important as it once was? Major League Baseball tried to help matters by providing that the outcome of the game would determine World Series home field advantage, but ratings have actually declined slightly since then. Currently, it seems as if the All-Star Game is trying to be two things at once - a meaningful game that should be taken seriously, and a meaningless exhibition game meant to showcase the game's stars. Perhaps the game could benefit from choosing which it wants to be.
Make the game truly matter
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, players took the All-Star Game very seriously. The defining moment was when Pete Rose barreled into A's catcher Ray Fosse during the 1970 All-Star Game, separating Fosse's shoulder, an injury he never fully recovered from. At the time, players took the game seriously as a matter of pride, in part because of the distinction between leagues. With that distinction gone, it may take something more than World Series home field advantage to motivate players, something like cold, hard cash.
If Major League Baseball wants the All-Star Game to be a serious endeavor, it should offer large cash bonuses to the winners. It should also allow each league to field the best team possible. This means no more fan vote and no more required representative from each team. Rosters should be slimmed down to the regular season limit of 25. The best players should play most, if not all of the game. In a serious game, Mike Trout would not exit by the fifth inning, as he most certainly will tonight.
But is this what fans really want to see? Will they care that one league bests the other? I don't really think the issue with the All-Star Game is that players don't take it seriously enough. I think the problem is its not as fun to watch anymore. Which leads me to.....
Make the game more fun
Baseball could acknowledge the All-Star Game is what it is - a meaningless exhibition game. The entire point of the game should be to entertain fans. Integrate fan interaction by allowing them to vote on Twitter who the manager should put in the game next. Play with the rules, after all, maybe Major League Baseball will stumble upon a rule that benefits the game after experimenting with it during the All-Star Game.
The All-Star Game should allow for open substitution of players, with an emphasis on getting everyone in the game. The game shouldn't even be limited to today's stars, recently retired players like Derek Jeter or Ken Griffey Jr. should be invited to participate. Bring on surprise cameos - entertain the fans! The point is, treat it less like a baseball game, and more like a celebration of baseball.
There is the chance this turns off purists of the game who see this as a complete mockery of the Midsummer Classic. But the All-Star Game was originally conceived of as an exhibition game for the fans meant to promote the game of baseball. Baseball needs to get back to its roots, when the game was filled with barnstorming teams traveling around the country, hamming it up for the crowds.
Perhaps even that won't work and we should just be content with an All-Star Game that does well in the ratings, but not what it once did. After all, the game still wins the night and is one of the higher-rated shows of the summer. Additionally, the All-Star Game is just a small part of the television package FOX acquired the rights to, with the World Series being the plum. The revenues from the deal will never be contingent on how well the All-Star Game does. Besides, even a smaller rating for a live sports event is more valuable to a TV programmer than a larger rating for a program that people are likely to DVR and watch later, zipping past the commercials.
Will you watch the All-Star Game? Is there anything baseball can do to improve it in your opinion?