MLB, FOX on a roll heading into Classic
Popularity of national pastime generates big ratings for network
SAN FRANCISCO -- The 78th All-Star Game begins with pregame ceremonies at 8 ET tonight, and for millions of viewers, it will represent a pleasurable break in the action during a marathon season. For FOX Sports, it will represent the start of what network president Ed Goren calls "an unprecedented run of major events certainly for us, and quite possibly, for any broadcast sports network."
Over a remarkable six-month span ahead, FOX will televise this Midsummer Classic and then the American League Championship Series and World Series; its usual NFC coverage; the BCS broadcasts, including the Orange, Fiesta and Sugar Bowls; the Super Bowl in February at Phoenix; and then the Daytona 500.
FOX is on a roll, and that is exactly what Goren is saying about Major League Baseball, which last summer announced a seven-year contract extension with the network. Goren appeared on a media conference call this week, along with perennial All-Star commentators Joe Buck and Tim McCarver, to discuss plans for this broadcast and to talk about baseball in general -- and specifically why the national pastime is so popular, generating big ratings for regular-season games in this first half as a warmup act.
"We're talking about the Padres and we're talking about the Brewers -- there is a certain amount of balance within baseball, where certainly fans in most of the cities, before the season starts, have a legitimate opportunity to say, 'Our team could be in the playoffs this year.' The early-season ratings are an example of that," Goren said. "There are a lot of great young players in the game, and mix that in with some great veterans, our ratings have been strong.
"Another thing -- and it sounds like a commercial for baseball, I'm sure -- but really on the one hand, you can talk about [Barry] Bonds, and I think the press likes to, but baseball is setting attendance records year after year, there are more corporate sponsors than ever before. Our sales -- we're setting a regular-season sales record -- the All-Star Game sold out three weeks before the game, a significant increase. Baseball is on a roll.
"Yes, the World Series is an unknown matchup, and much depends on how long it goes, but our All-Star Game was a 9.3 rating a year ago, a 15-percent increase," Goren added. "Most sports would love to get a 9.3 rating for their championship series, let alone an All-Star Game. Most of the [MLB] teams are competitive today. A lot of the young players ... just the atmosphere in the country. Look at all the kids who are attending games today. Same with the postseason. In a lot of leagues, you get to the championship and it's very corporate. In baseball, you look around, and you see a lot of kids."
That typical kid watching this game on TV knows nothing other than the presence of McCarver and Buck as the hosts for this incomparable night. McCarver is about to call his 16th MLB All-Star Game, more than anyone else. It's the ninth for Buck, who is now firmly entrenched as a veteran in the big-event business after those early days when you watched to see how Jack Buck's son would do in the booth. For pregame studio commentators Kevin Kennedy and Jeanne Zelasko, it's eight and seven, respectively. The time marches on, and familiarity reigns. But some things change.
For this All-Star Game, there will be 80 microphones in the house -- including one on an umpire for the first time.
Fans at MLB.com and FoxSports.com can follow live batting practice and post-BP interviews. That new show will be hosted by Chris Rose of Fox Sports and Harold Reynolds of MLB.com.
"The added element this year is, in fact, creating an Internet event for Fox Sports and for BAM," Goren said, referring to Major League Baseball Advanced Media. "The rights for these, we would love to partner up. But this doesn't happen without the cooperation of [CEO] Bob Bowman and the people at BAM in forming this partnership."
This marks the fifth consecutive year that the All-Star Game results in World Series home-field advantage to the winning league, and one would be hard-pressed to say that it has been that much of an advantage to date. Florida won the first World Series under this format (on Yankee Stadium turf) in 2003, then there were the sweeps by American League champs Boston and Chicago, and St. Louis won it all last year for the NL. Still, Buck said he has seen the rule change affect the way the game is played.
And thus the way it is broadcast.
"It's something we've talked about every year since it's gone to that format," Buck said. "We speak on behalf of guys who have done these games in the past. It's a tough game to do. Probably the hardest game we do all year -- in baseball or football. Guys are coming and going, you want to give everybody's story out there. Before this format, where the winning team secures home-field advantage, it was more a TV show. Something that contained no strategy, and it was like putting on a game show, almost, where you've got guys coming and going and it's hard to keep up.
"What we've noticed in talking to managers who have a reason to try and win and gain home-field advantage in the World Series -- whether it's [AL manager Jim] Leyland this year, and I think it's farfetched with [NL manager Tony] La Russa -- for the guys doing the game, it makes it more fun and interesting because there is strategy involved. Because of roster moves that have more to do with strategy. We like it. It's something that has added to our conversation during the course of the game. It's been debated for years now. It enhances it."
Says McCarver: "It affects the managers more than the players. It's farfetched to think if Carl Crawford is batting with two out and a man on second base in the ninth, he's saying, 'Let's win this for David Ortiz, so the Red Sox can win home-field advantage.' That's not the case. But for the manager, that is the case. I think Tony and Jim will be playing to win, and prior to this format, I don't think they played to win. First and foremost, thoughts were on playing to get guys into the game."
Buck said he has noticed that "the starters will play longer" in this home-field advantage format. "The better players that are in the game, you get to see more of them. Prior to this change, you'd see two appearances, maybe one appearance by a hitter, then off they go to their jet, wherever they want to go. Pitchers are staying in longer, getting more innings, getting extra outs. It has made it more interesting."
And just imagine if FOX actually were to call a National League victory. It never has happened during this streak of continuous FOX All-Star broadcasts. The NL last won in 1996, and there was a tie in Milwaukee in 2002.
Talking points will cover the gamut in tonight's game. They will talk about Prince Fielder and the Brewers, a team that Buck said represents "trouble for a lot of years" to come if you're a Cardinals fan in the NL Central. They will talk about Alex Rodriguez. They will talk about the youngest NL infield ever. For example, Goren says of Jose Reyes, the electric shortstop from the Mets: "Watch him. I don't care whether he's at-bat or in the field. There is a naturalness with some of these kids. They just love playing the game."
Bonds, ever so predictably, was the main conversation topic. How would the FOX guys handle his presence? What do you say about someone with such a disparate reputation? This is a bigtime home game for the Giants' slugger, who is just four homers away from Hank Aaron's hallowed record of 755 longballs.
"I think we're going to do more than touch on it," McCarver said. "No matter how negative the vibes from baseball fans are outside of San Francisco, it's clear that he still has a bastion of support in his hometown. And because the game's being held in San Francisco, it somehow seems right to me that he's starting the game. But will we spend more time on Barry Bonds than we would normally? Of course. Would he dominate the broadcast? Of course not."
"The hard thing about broadcasting this game is the pace," Buck added. "You set the defense, give everybody's story. It's hard if you dominate your conversation on one guy, no doubt. What angle do you want to cover with Barry Bonds? There are 15 different angles you can cover it from. Tim and I always try to tackle the hard issues and have conversations people have at home and not just on the television screen. You just don't have forever to go on and on and on. As opposed to a regular season game or a Dodgers-Giants game coming up after the All-Star Game, you don't have time to go back and revisit it. I can't imagine there being enough time to really do it justice. ... That's something we'll be wrestling with right up until gametime. How long does his at-bat last?"
Goren said of Bonds: "No. 1, I guarantee you that when Barry comes up to bat the first time, we will not be in replay. No. 2, if it's a one-pitch popup to first, we will not have a chance to talk about anything. What Joe is saying, he's an All-Star that has his own story that needs telling. First off, I trust the guys who are doing the broadcast. I should after all these years. They've made me very successful. But the key point is, this isn't talk radio. We're in a baseball game. And I think the guys have a proper approach."
Goren said not to get too caught up in Bonds for this game, because he believes that this one will be remembered for a Willie Mays ceremony much the same way people remember the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston for all the players surrounding Ted Williams before the game.
"One of the most special parts that any of us were involved with in an All-Star setting was the Ted Williams event at Fenway, and I have every expectation that the Willie Mays event will take on the same feel," Goren said. "It's certainly appropriate for an event in San Francisco."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.