The 87th All-Star Game will be tonight, and every year there seems to be less and less interest in the midsummer exhibition game pitting baseball’s best stars. Ratings have been slumping for decades, and while some of that is an increasingly fragmented television market, the decline and the drop-off in World Series television ratings speaks to the decline in national interest for baseball’s biggest events.
Despite baseball’s dethroning as the America’s favorite sport by football, it remains a very popular game. Baseball has evolved from a national pastime to a regional sport, with fans only caring about their own local nine. Local television ratings remain very strong baseball, but fans aren’t tuning in to see baseball events not featuring their favorite team.
One possible reason is the gradual de-emphasis of distinction between baseball’s two leagues - the American League and National League. The two leagues once had an intense rivalry, dating back to the days when the American League was formed as an upstart to challenge the longstanding National League. For almost a century, the two had separate league offices, with an American League Commissioner to handle American League affairs (suspensions, expansion, instituting the designated hitter, etc.) and a National League Commissioner to handle National League affairs.
The two leagues adopted very different styles of play. The National League, quicker to racially integrate than the American League, benefited from speedy African-American players to emphasize stolen bases and defense. The American League, seeking to boost offense, adopted the designated hitter rule, emphasizing power. Fans associated themselves as "American League fans" or "National League fans." Debates raged on about the designated hitter rule. American League fans wailed as the Senior Circuit dominated the All-Star Game in the 1980s.
Fanbases associated themselves with leagues nearly as much as they associated themselves with their teams. Kansas City was an "American League" city, even well before the Royals came into existence. For a long time the American Association’s Kansas City Blues served as the top farm club for the New York Yankees. When Kansas City finally landed a Major League team, it was the AL’s Athletics. And of course the Royals were put in the American League, where they would win four pennants.
Through divisional realignment in 1995, interleague play beginning in 1997, and the dissolution of league offices in 2000, baseball has blurred the distinction between leagues. Teams have even switched leagues, as baseball has turned its back on several decades of history by putting the Brewers in the National League and the Astros in the American League. The result has been fan indifference to which league wins the All-Star Game, or even which league can have bragging rights over the Fall Classic.
So what can be done? Major League Baseball could pull the plug on interleague play, but that is unlikely to happen, and the novelty still allows fans access to teams they wouldn’t otherwise see. Setting up separate league offices might be a start, but not one with a direct impact fans are likely to notice.
What has hurt, in my opinion, is the unbalanced schedule. Fans are not going to be as familiar with other teams in their league if they only see them for two series per year. The Yankees, once a hated rival in the 1970s, will come to Kauffman Stadium just once, in late August. On the flip side, having to face divisional rivals 19 times a year was supposed to build up division rivalries, but what rivalries have been created since the unbalanced schedule began? Are the Twins and Royals rivals now?
Instead, unbalanced scheduling has created divisional fatigue. What should be important divisional games instead lose their importance because the Royals and Twins face each other so damn much. You don’t circle an important game on the calendar if there are 18 other like it. Creating a more balanced schedule would allow interdivisional rivalries to take hold. The Royals and Blue Jays built up some bad blood last year and faced each other in the ALCS. But they will play each other just six times this year, so the Royals can face the Twins 19 times. Is that good for the game?
Baseball could also make interleague play count for more, as it has with the All-Star Game, by making home field advantage for the World Series depend on three factors - which league wins the All-Star Game, which league wins more games in interleague play, and which league pennant winner has the most wins. The sports should definitely put the brakes on any more realignment, and while I enjoy poking fun at National League rules with pitchers hitting, I do enjoy the contrast in leagues with one league using the designated hitter, and other allowing pitchers to hit, and would resist any calls for a uniform rule across leagues on the designated hitter.
Some of the reasons the All-Star Game and World Series were more popular decades ago were the sheer novelty of baseball being on the television. With the influx of games being broadcast in many different forms, that novelty is gone, and for the better. These events are unlikely to ever have the mass appeal they once had, but putting more emphasis on league pride, the same way college fans cheer on their conference in bowl games and tournaments, could help bring back more national interest in some fading pastimes.