- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 9, 2002

The mighty NFL arrives in sunny Hawaii each year for the Pro Bowl. The setting is positively idyllic, the players are relaxed, approachable and represent the very best of the country's most popular spectator sport. The game is often an entertaining, high-scoring shootout.

And few fans really care.

The most dominant sports league in America struggled to sell out the Pro Bowl, its annual all-star game, this past February. The game did finally sell out, but only after a frenetic last-minute push and a bending of the league's usually iron-clad local TV blackout rules.

"We've been out there for the Pro Bowl for 24 years. We've let it get tired, and it needs a bit of a push" concedes Jim Steeg, NFL senior vice president of special events.

Tonight in Milwaukee, baseball will play its Midsummer Classic in a sold-out Miller Park. But the large corporate crowd in attendance, like those for the sponsor-driven NHL and NBA All-Star games, obscures a fast-declining interest in these games among ordinary sports fans.

Some recent minor upticks in TV ratings aside, viewership for baseball's All-Star Game has declined 28 percent since 1993. The NBA's All-Star drop-off in the same time frame is 43 percent; the NHL's 27 percent. Pro Bowl ratings have fallen 65 percent since 1995. Even for the shrinking universe of network TV sports, these are serious numbers.

The alarming ratings are prompting significant all-star action among each of the four major U.S. sports leagues. The NFL is moving the Pro Bowl kickoff time so the game airs at night on the mainland; helping replace the oft-criticized artificial turf at Aloha Stadium with a more natural surface; and will have ABC's lead announcer team of John Madden and Al Michaels call the game.

Major League Baseball and Fox Sports tonight will unveil the results of a widespread poll selecting the 30 greatest moments in baseball history, and MLB marketers promoted last night's Home Run Derby like never before. The NHL and NBA have similarly enlisted elements such as celebrity games, rookie showcases and multi-day fan festivals for their All-Star weekends. Each league is beaming their all-star games around the globe to more countries than ever before.

"The All-Star Game is not a regular-season game and it's not meant to be," said Frank Supovitz, NHL senior vice president of special events. "It's our job to make [the All-Star] Game a real celebration of the sport and a reflection of the host city."

Of course, All-Star games are exhibitions by definition. But even within that context, and in the era of rampant free agency and national TV, do these games really matter anymore? And with the heavy specters of labor strife and drugs hanging over many of these events, such as tonight's baseball tilt, can they ever fully be the unabashed celebrations of sport they're meant to be?

"Each of these games has had pressures for different reasons," said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based industry consultant. "In baseball, interleague play has most certainly taken away from the uniqueness of an American League-National League matchup outside the World Series and All-Star Game. In basketball, you've seen players show less willingness to really be part of what is intended to be a showcase for the sport, such as participating in the slam dunk contest. Hockey has always struggled to get big numbers with its All-Star Game. And football, it's essentially a vacation. It's so close to and right after the Super Bowl, it's tough for them, too."

The first major All-Star game was baseball's in 1933 in Chicago and was created by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward. The intent, beyond the obvious of bringing together the sport's best talent in one place, was to give fans a rare look at National and American League players who never faced each other outside the World Series.

The game was an instant hit, thanks in part to a Babe Ruth homer in that inaugural game, and the NHL followed suit in 1947 and NBA in 1951. The NFL played varying series of all-star game formats before settling on its current Pro Bowl format in 1970.

Now nearly every league of some significance, including the WNBA and Major League Soccer, plays an All-Star game. Those fledgling leagues, however, have struggled to even sell out the games, much less generate a meaningful national TV audience.

Over the years, All-Star games, particularly in baseball, have generated plenty of memorable moments. Carl Hubbell's five straight strikeouts in 1934, a feat repeated by Fernando Valenzuela in 1986. Pete Rose barreling over Ray Fosse in 1970 to deliver an extra-inning win for the NL. Reggie Jackson's moon shot onto the roof of Tiger Stadium a year later. Cal Ripken homering and winning MVP honors last year in his final All-Star Game. Basketball's Magic Johnson playing the 1992 NBA All-Star Game just three months after announcing he was HIV positive.

"All the events of the [of the All-Star Game and weekend] make for great water-cooler talk," said NBA spokesman Michael Bass.

More recently, however, these games have been also remembered for what they're not. Baseball's 2000 All-Star Game generated its worst-ever TV ratings when nine stars, including Ripken, Mark McGwire and Pedro Martinez, missed the game with injuries.

Several stars, including Martinez, Atlanta Braves ace pitcher Tom Glavine, and Arizona hurler Randy Johnson will skip tonight's game. Other All-Stars, such as Oakland infielder Eric Chavez, will play but have made no secret of their ambivalence for the game. But Fox executives, still waiting to cash in on a $2.5billion bet on baseball riding in no small part on the All-Star Game, remain cautiously optimistic.

"Each sport has its issues with All-Star games. There's no denying that," said Ed Goren, Fox Sports president. "But through the years, baseball has the one All-Star game that still holds up and gives us great stories year in and year out. We're certainly hoping for more of the same."

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