NBA jams baseball's hold as most popular classic AL-NL has rich past, but ratings dropping


Since Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward invented the concept 60 years ago, baseball's All-Star Game has had the popularity and prestige other major sports could only dream about.

But there's a flashy, glitzy kid, namely the NBA All-Star Game, who has moved in at the end of the block and is threatening to challenge its more placid older brother for supremacy.

No one in NBA officialdom will say it, for fear of offending his or her baseball brethren, but the basketball midseason classic has become a rival for fans' affections.

"We feel like we have great athletes, and an All-Star setting is where they really get a chance to showcase their talents," said Steve Mills, vice president of special events for the NBA.

Not surprisingly, baseball folks prefer to think of their product as the pre-eminent game.

"They [the NBA] have copied some things we've done," said Jim Small, a spokesman for Major League Baseball. "We feel like we've kind of led the way when it comes to the All-Star experience."

Over the years, the baseball and basketball all-star contests have established dominance in terms of public interest. By contrast, the NHL All-Star Game suffers from the sport's regional interest, and the NFL's Pro Bowl is seen as an anticlimax because it comes after the Super Bowl.

For a long time, the baseball All-Star Game was the unchallenged leader, giving fans of the American and National leagues a chance, apart from the World Series, to measure the mettle of their league against the other.

But if television ratings are the measure, then the NBA game, conducted for 43 years, has become a challenger.

This year's NBA game, played in Salt Lake City in February, drew a 14.3 national rating for NBC, just slightly below the 14.9 rating CBS received for last summer's baseball game in San Diego.

The Salt Lake City contest was the highest-rated All-Star Game in NBA history, drawing ratings 12 percent higher than the 1992 game in Orlando, Fla.

By contrast, the baseball game's ratings have shown a steady decline during the past five years, from a 20.5 in 1988 to a 17.4 in 1991 down to last year's 14.9.

The obvious reason for the NBA All-Star Game's building acceptance is the growing popularity of professional basketball.

In 1984, when David Stern became NBA commissioner, the All-Star Game became All-Star Weekend, with a collection of made-for-television skills events that copied baseball's home run derby and old-timers' game. This year, the NBA copied baseball's theme-park-like FanFest with Jam Session, which drew 50,000 visitors over five days.

"There's a lot of trading between all the sports," said Mills. "We're very friendly and have a good relationship with the guys at the NFL and Major League Baseball and the NHL, to talk about what works well for all of us."

For the Saturday before the Sunday All-Star Game, the NBA developed a dunk contest, a three-point shooting event and a legends game, and sold it to cable television.

The Saturday events have been as popular as Sunday's game, LTC and have produced their own memorable moments, such as former Chicago Bulls guard Craig Hodges hitting 19 straight shots during the 1991 three-point competition and Phoenix Suns forward Cedric Ceballos dunking blindfolded in 1992.

In 1985, Small said, baseball moved to incorporate its own skills competition into the All-Star festivities, including a hitting for accuracy contest, relay throws and a home run contest.

A "Heroes of Baseball" old-timers' game eventually was added, but the accuracy and relay contests were dropped for a variety of reasons, Small said.

"If you find things that work, you try them," said Small. "It's just that those things didn't work out well."

But at its core, the NBA All-Star Game, just like its baseball counterpart, is a chance for the greatest in the sport to dazzle and thrill the fans, even if the fans are players themselves.

"My biggest thrill, besides just making the team, was going into the locker room and having my feet next to Michael Jordan," said Washington Bullets guard Michael Adams, who was a reserve guard on the East squad in the 1992 All-Star Game in Orlando, Fla.

"After the game, about 30 reporters were interviewing him, and I was sitting there by myself. It was fun. I know everybody thinks of him as a great athlete, but to me, it was like he was a rock star that night."

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