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What are American's favorite All-Star events to watch?
Another lackluster NBA All-Star weekend wrapped up in Houston Sunday night. The dunk contest isn't what it used to be and the game features superstars playing some sport vaguely akin to professional basketball. But on the surface, the NBA All-Star game gets rave reviews from die-hard fans and celebrity hoopsters alike. The pomp and circumstance of the NBA — and its overall culture — lends itself perfectly to a glamorous, exclusive weekend where only the elite get an invite.
However, the numbers say something different about its popularity. Fewer people tune in to the NBA All-Star game than both the Pro Bowl or MLB's midsummer classic. Yet, for some reason, people love to publicly, and rather loudly, hate the Pro Bowl.
Well, they are all just liars.
Because the Pro Bowl — a game the players don't want to play in and one this particular football fan hasn’t watched in nearly a decade — is still the most popular all-star event in professional sports. And there is a reason the Pro Bowl is the most popular All-Star event in all of the major American sports.
1. NFL Pro Bowl (Jan.)
Despite more public grumbling and finger-wagging than any other sport, the NFL’s Pro Bowl is still the most popular all-star game in American professional sports. The game pulled a 7.1 U.S. rating last month, down slightly from the previous year’s rating of 7.3. The game itself is actually the farthest from its regular-season form than any other sport, as the NFL implements rule changes for safety concerns. It's also the only all-star game in which the athletes have no real interest in actually competing at a high level. How could it possibly be in the best interest of Haloti Ngata to give it his all in the Pro Bowl? There is no incentive to play a "real" game, and better yet, is it even reasonable to expect that from these gladiators who destroy their bodies for the fans every Sunday? The high-scoring devolution of the game might deserve some credit for pulling in viewers, but the real answer is much more simple. The worst all-star event is the most popular all-star event because football is king. If the oblong spheroid is on the TV, people will watch.
2. MLB All-Star Game (July)
The midsummer classic was as much a part of my childhood as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. But if the recent viewership trends continue, the game could be relegated to cable TV sooner rather than later. Broadcast on FOX since 2001, MLB’s All-Star Game has watched a steady decline in ratings since its peak in 1970 (28.5). It reached a historic low last summer with a 6.8 number. Making it “count” by adding home-field advantage to the stakes hasn’t had the impact Commissioner Bud Selig had hoped. This game seems to rouse the most nostalgia and seems to be the most highly thought of by dedicated sports fans (myself included). However, the trends are concerning and it clearly sits well behind the NFL.
3. NBA All-Star Game (Feb.)
It is hard to argue that the NBA All-Star festivities didn’t peak in the early 1990s. The Dunk Contest was electric because the best players in the game took it seriously and delivered a show for the fans every year (looking at you Michael and Dominique). And the ratings for the game itself prove that out with a high-water TV mark of 14.3 in 1993. However, since the early '90s, the game has seen a steady decline until recently. After bottoming out with a 4.2 rating in 2007, the game reached its highest numbers last fall since '03 (6.6). The 2012 event posted a 5.4 U.S. rating, up slightly from the '11 game, which drew a 5.2 U.S. rating. Is this a trend that will continue and potentially allow the NBA to move ahead of baseball? Or will competing with Sunday night TV and occasionally the Oscars eventually halt any growth the league has seen in recent years?
4. NASCAR All-Star Race (May)
NASCAR’s all-star event is extremely entertaining and might be one of the few events that actually improves on the regular-season product. A shortened field running a shortened race over various segments with no points implications and loads of cash on the line? Yes, please. In all but one year — Atlanta in 1986 — the event has been held at Charlotte Motorspeedway, the home track and birthplace of the entire sport. Yet, much like the rest of the NASCAR viewership, the ratings simply don’t carry the weight of football or baseball. That is the bad news. The good news is that the numbers have been stable for a long period of time pulling a 2.2 in 2012 after three straight 2.1’s from 2009-11. This might be the most underrated of the professional all-star events.
5. NHL All-Star Game (Jan.)
As expected, this is easily the lowest rated all-star event of the four main professional sports. This is partly due to Olympic and work stoppage interruptions but also because the sport has been relegated to smaller cable networks. It’s unfortunate since the gameplay itself is some of the most enjoyable of any of the pro events. The game still pulls solid ratings in Canada but the overall US viewership is clearly the lowest of the major sports. The 2011 event pulled a 1.3, up 33 percent from the '09 game, and was the highest such number since the '04 event that landed a 2.7 U.S. mark. After two years of steady TV ratings, it will be interesting to see what happens to the NHL mid-season classic. The work stoppage this season led to the game being cancelled and there will be no all-star game in 2014 due to the Winter Olympics in Russia. So the 60th annual NHL All-Star game in Columbus, Ohio, has been pushed back until January 2015.
6. MLS All-Star Game (July)
One of the least popular pro sports in America is soccer. And despite pockets of deeply passionate fans — kudos to you fútbol fans in Seattle, by the way — the sport has lagged behind its other professional brethren since its inception in 1996. So the other all-star game played in the summer is relegated to a mid-week broadcast on ESPN2. The game pulled a 0.34 U.S. TV rating in 2012, down from a 0.46 in '11. Unfortunately, soccer will never be huge in this country and neither will its all-star event.