The Internet Killed the All-Star Game
The National Basketball Association is coming off a great weekend of All-Star Game festivities. Yesterday, I investigated just how successful the event was for its host city, New York. (Answer: impossible to tell.) Today, let's consider the league's side of things.
The business of sports is increasingly moving away from the seats and onto the couch, with multibillion-dollar broadcast deals eclipsing revenue from tickets sales and stadium concessions. You could argue that's even truer for an event like an all-star game, a once-a-year extravaganza that's more entertainment than competition. Sellouts are almost built-in, while there's no guarantee that people will tune in given the myriad options on a Sunday night.
So how did the NBA fare? It depends on your point of comparison. According to Nielsen data, ratings (4.3) and share (7) flatlined from last year's All-Star Game, while total viewership (7.2 million) actually declined slightly. Those numbers are still respectable, good for second among programs that aired on cable Sunday night. But the NBA's showcase lags behind the most recent Major League Baseball All-Star Game (11.3 million) and the National Football League's Pro Bowl (8.8 million), only surpassing the National Hockey League's All-Star Game (1.2 million).
Moreover, the NBA was scorched on cable by "The Walking Dead" (12.3 million), which aired during the game's first hour, and totally eclipsed on network by the "Saturday Night Live" 40th anniversary special (23.1 million), which coincided with the game's full broadcast.
The NBA shouldn't feel too bad, however. First, it's important to consider that MLB's game airs on network television (FOX), while the NBA's game was on cable (TNT and TBS). The Pro Bowl was also on cable (ESPN), but the NFL's television machine is a juggernaut that can't be stopped, no matter how much of a joke the game actually is. And the NHL's game aired on NBC Sports Network, which most Americans would struggle to locate with the clicker.
On a broader level, the NBA is simply following a long-term trend across all four major sports leagues that has seen all-star game viewership decline over the last 20 years. There are, of course, league-specific factors playing into this: The rise of football has coincided with an overall drop in all baseball viewership, and the tide hasn't subsided even with MLB adding actual value to its all-star game, with the winning league gaining home-field advantage in the World Series. Even with football's endless popularity, Pro Bowl viewership has begun to wane since experiencing an artificial bump from strategic scheduling in 2009, when the NFL moved the game from after the Super Bowl to the off-week before. The NHL's lackluster all-star game ratings are indicative of its larger struggles to capture American sports audiences, particularly after several labor stoppages, highlighted by the precipitous drop following the 2004-05 lockout.
The NBA All-Star Game has suffered a similar decline since its own lockout in 1999, though ratings and viewership have remained relatively steady over the past decade. (Another momentous occasion took place in 1999: Michael Jordan's retirement.) But the NBA is a star-powered league with no shortage of big names right now, so it's hard to pin this all on the Jordan Effect. And while the NBA's ratings for the season have also declined alongside the All-Star Game's, it hasn't been nearly as dramatic a shift.
I suspect the NBA All-Star Game's waning viewership speaks to the way fans interact with all the other all-star games in this new era of sports media proliferation. There was a time when Johnny in Utah had to watch the All-Star Game in order to see the Michael Jordans and Derek Jeters play, save for the postseason, a few games a year his local team faced those stars and some national broadcasts.
But that's no longer the case, as the 24/7 news cycle has extended to sports and jumped to the open frontier of online and mobile. A Minnesotan living in New York has more options than ever to watch Zach LaVine posterize competitors. At the end of the day, all-star games are really just three-hour highlight reels in an era in which we have an entire channel dedicated solely to round-the-clock highlight reels.
As someone who can't consume enough sports content, I'll continue to revel in what usually ends up being one heck of a show. But all-star games have become obsolete, and the leagues will have to keep finding new gimmicks each year to keep them floating in a shallow pool of relevance.
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