All-Star Game audience keeps shrinking

Fox hoping Jeter farewell will give the ratings a needed bump

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Add this to the list of sentences you never thought would be written: Fox would kill to have ratings for Tuesday's All-Star Game comparable to those for U.S. soccer.

Back in the 1970s and into the '80s, the Midsummer Classic routinely attracted 30 million to 35 million viewers. On July 13, 1976, more than half of the televisions in use were tuned in to the All-Star Game.

Granted, the TV landscape has been altered dramatically with the advent of cable and other platforms in the last 40 years, but it hasn't changed that much since 2009. The '09 All-Star Game in St. Louis pulled in 14.6 million viewers. The ratings haven't come close since. Last year's game at the Mets' Citi Field was watched by an estimated 11 million.

Fox would do an Ozzie Smith-like flip if Tuesday's All-Star Game in Minneapolis could even sniff the 20 million-plus viewers who watched U.S. soccer matches on ESPN during the World Cup.

The comparison isn't completely fair since the World Cup has morphed into soccer's version of the Olympics. Americans will get excited about it once every four years.

However, the notion of comparing baseball's premier showcase and soccer in a TV ratings context would have been unthinkable not only 30 years ago, but even just five or six.

A 25 percent decline in All-Star Game viewing since 2009 definitely is troubling to Fox and Major League Baseball. The erosion coincides with historic low ratings for recent World Series.

You could sense the frustration when the subject was brought up to Fox Sports President Eric Shanks during a conference call with reporters.

"This question gets asked every year," Shanks said. "It's nothing new."

Shanks then gave a non-answer. Addressing the issues would mean admitting there is a problem, especially among young viewers who seem to be tuning out baseball.

After a long monologue lauding the All-Star Game and Fox's overall MLB package, Shanks concluded by saying, "We couldn't be more optimistic about our entire baseball business. … Long story short, high confidence."

Perhaps realistic might be the better word, because the recent numbers could be the new reality for Fox and MLB. With so many choices for viewers, including a glut of baseball games being offered daily on multiple platforms, perhaps it is inevitable for the ratings to become splintered. Even the concept of watching all the top stars on one field doesn't seem as special anymore.

Yet Fox believes it has an interesting storyline to lure viewers Tuesday night: the farewell of Derek Jeter contrasted with the emergence of many new, young stars. Indeed, the game will mark a stark transition of sorts. Fox analyst Tom Verducci points out that two-thirds of the players are in their 20s. The next generation is here with stars such as Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig.

"When Derek moves on, the light will be on the rest of those guys," Fox analyst Harold Reynolds said.

Jeter does have one more night in the spotlight. Much like it did for Cal Ripken Jr.'s last All-Star Game in Seattle in 2001, Fox will make him the show. The Yankees star will wear a mic during the game.

Fox play-by-play voice Joe Buck insists the network won't overstep its bounds when it comes to Jeter.

"We're there to cover it, not choreograph it," he said.

Fox, though, wouldn't mind seeing a spontaneous display of emotion. A few tears could go a long way.

Fox hopes Jeter will affect the ratings. However, the number likely won't come close to the 19 million viewers who watched his first All-Star Game in 1998.

Indeed, times have changed for baseball.

Big Hurt: Frank Thomas will make his first All-Star Game appearance as an analyst. He has been part of Fox's studio coverage this year. The former White Sox star earned praise from his boss.

"He's been a blast to work with," said John Entz, head of production for Fox Sports. "A lot of times you get a guy with his credentials who thinks he knows it all. He's working hard at this and he wants to get better."

Three-man team: The All-Star Game also will be the first big stage for Fox's new No. 1 announcing team. Reynolds and Verducci replaced Tim McCarver, who departed after last year's World Series.

Buck said he is thrilled with his new teammates.

"What I hoped would happen has happened," Buck said. "And that is: the chemistry has developed quickly, we're having fun, we're able to laugh, and we give each other trouble. But the different ways that Tom and Harold see the game, that's what makes this three-man booth work."

British Open: ESPN will cover all four rounds of the British Open beginning Thursday. That means four days of Paul Azinger working as an analyst.

Even though Azinger is one of the best in the business, he wants to stay at ESPN despite its limited slate of golf.

"I've talked to a few people," Azinger said. "But I don't want to do 20 events a year. I like my team at ESPN. I like the tournaments we do. If they add more events, I'd be happy to do them."

Special contributor Ed Sherman writes at Follow him @Sherman_Report

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