Major League Baseball maintains the longest-running all-star game among the four major North American sports leagues. What began as an exhibition contest in 1933 has since evolved into a weeklong celebration of all things baseball, including home runs, celebrity softball, and web gems. The league's decision to award World Series home-field advantage to the game's winner adds drama to the mix. But just how much do fans -- and sponsors -- actually care?
Do fans still care?
Television ratings are an excellent proxy for fan interest. The 1970 All-Star Game, held in Cincinnati and broadcast on Comcast's (NASDAQ:CMCSA) NBC, drew a record rating of 28.5 and reached 16 million households, according to Baseball Almanac. That year is infamous for Pete Rose's game-winning home-plate collision with AL catcher Ray Fosse.
Ratings have fallen since, last passing the double-digit mark in 2001. Last year's game on Fox (NASDAQ:FOX) drew a 6.9 rating and amassed fewer than 8 million households. Although the network pays the MLB a little over $500 million a year for broadcast rights, much of that value is tied to playoff coverage and the right to televise World Series. Baseball's Fall Classic typically draws 25%-40% more viewers than the MLB All-Star Game, depending on the year.
In fact, only 2012's game ratings were worse than last season's, and on average, viewership is now half what it was in Rose's prime. Although ticket prices, which average $675 for this year's game in Minneapolis, haven't suffered a similar fate, it's likely because distribution is more efficient than it has been in the past.
The evidence of decline becomes clear when the AL-NL showcase is compared to other sports' all-star games. The NBA's, for example, was watched by an estimated 7.5 million people this year and more than 10 million in 2013. That's almost on par with the MLB's numbers, despite airing on TNT, which reaches fewer households than Fox.
Perhaps more startlingly, the NFL Pro Bowl has outdrawn baseball since 2011. Although it is broadcast by NBC, the game holds the unenviable position of airing after the NFL regular season. And as recently as 2012, according to ESPN, the league's commissioner has considered bagging the game altogether. Said Roger Goodell, "We're either going to have to improve the quality of what we're doing in the Pro Bowl or consider other changes or even considering eliminating the game if that's the kind of quality game we're going to provide." And yet the game still gets more viewers than baseball's contest.
What about sponsors?
Between Anheuser-Busch InBev's beer, Gatorade's drinks, SiriusXM's streaming radio, and Qualcomm's tech, baseball is no stranger to the world of corporate sponsorships. The MLB has 19 official partners this season, many of which have been with the sport for decades. Anheuser-Busch has been a sponsor since 1980, while Gatorade and SiriusXM have been involved for over 10 years. The league's longest-running partnership, with Procter & Gamble, is in its 75th year.
The bottom line
Viewers flee, while sponsors flock to baseball. These contrasting forces are apparent at the All-Star Game, and they illustrate the sport's misunderstood popularity. The money is coming in -- the MLB posted record revenue of more than $8 billion last season. But that doesn't mean fans are.
As I've written before, the league must improve the game's watchability. A quicker pace of play, tech-friendly stadiums, and the use of robotic umpires are just a few potential fixes. One thing is clear, though: Instead of tinkering with the MLB All-Star Game, baseball should be focusing on the broader, systemic issues that plague it.