- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 13, 2000

Nine injured stars did a lot more damage to Tuesday's All-Star Game than merely diminishing the quality of play on the field. Their absence also helped throw into serious doubt baseball's wish to finally reap a major TV payday like the NFL, NHL, NASCAR and NCAA each have since 1998.

The All-Star Game, suffering from the absence of Mark McGwire, Cal Ripken, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux and five others, drew a worst-ever rating of 10.1 and 18 share, 14 percent below the draw for the 1997 game, the previous low. A ratings point represents slightly more than 1 million U.S. households, while the share reflects the percentage of TVs in use tuned to a particular program.

Baseball officials had been counting on a major draw for the game to help justify its desire to see yearly network TV fees jump dramatically from the current $210 million to more than $500 million. Baseball initially wanted to triple the current contracts with Fox and NBC, which expire after the World Series, but was rebuffed in that request.

The regular season's first half has also been little help to baseball in building its pitch, as ratings on Fox's weekly Saturday broadcasts are up just .7 percent from last year, and ratings for ESPN's games aired three times a week are down 7 percent from 1999.

Baseball owners, meeting tomorrow in New York to discuss a wide range of issues, have the ongoing TV negotiations on their agenda. The stakes are high as commissioner Bud Selig's desire to implement a more extensive form of revenue sharing would be made much easier by some type of TV windfall.

"One game, this game in the middle of the season, won't necessarily make or break anything. But these numbers will certainly be a topic of discussion [among owners and TV networks]," said Neal Pilson, former president of CBS Sports and now an industry consultant.

"We'll know a lot more from what the postseason brings. Those games are still much more important than this one. It's very important to remember, though, each TV deal stands on it own. Just because the NCAA, NHL and NFL all got huge increases doesn't mean baseball will or should," Pilson said.

NBC executives yesterday declined to comment on the effect the All-Star ratings would have on its negotiations with baseball for 2001 and beyond. But both the network and baseball officials yesterday acknowledged they expected a fairly low draw for the game.

"The game is still a great event, but there is absolutely no doubt interest was diminished with so many stars out for the game," said NBC spokesman Kevin Sullivan. "The rating reflects the absence of those stars."

The game also competed against ABC's runaway hit "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?"

Analysts say baseball's still-shaky allure on television which stands in contrast to record-pace draws at the gates also stems from the laws of supply and demand working against it. Industry sources say only Fox is interested in the weekly Saturday package of regular season games it holds. CBS, NBC and ABC each have a significant presence in golf, which now draws significantly better than baseball, and would have trouble fitting baseball into a weekend schedule.

A postseason/All-Star package of games held by NBC is slightly more in demand, but a scheduling problem persists. ABC, CBS and Fox each plan their autumns around NFL telecasts, still the king of televised sports, with everything else a distant second on their priority lists.

So even though baseball enters what Selig calls a "renaissance," thanks in part to exploits of McGwire, Sammy Sosa and other stars, network television is still not beating down its door.

"The timing of this [All-Star] number cannot help," said Bill Carroll, director of programming for Katz Television Group, which advises stations on programming and advertising. "It calls into question that a special element of the TV package this year didn't turn out to be too special. But baseball still must think they're going to be able to get those kind of numbers. They wouldn't have suggested them otherwise."

Baseball last winter did more than triple its cable take from ESPN, but that deal involved a large increase in the number of games televised, particularly on ESPN2.

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