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Bonds to juice fan interest

Don't bet against a full house and big viewership when Bonds passes Aaron, despite steroid allegations.

A weekly column by Chris Isidore, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- There's been a lot of attention given to the question about whether Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig will be at the game when Barry Bonds sets the career home run record.

But the more important question is whether the fans will be there. You can bet that they will. Certainly ESPN and Fox are confident the fans will want to be watching the game.

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Despite all the criticism of his alleged steroid use, networks and fans are still eager to be there if and when Barry Bonds sets the all-time home run record.
Despite all the criticism of his alleged steroid use, networks and fans are still eager to be there if and when Barry Bonds sets the all-time home run record.

Controversy about whether Bonds has cheated by taking steroids has left Major League Baseball somewhat reluctant to embrace what is expected to be a historic home run later this season. The sport's sponsors such as MasterCard (Charts), which have been eager to tie promotion into milestones, aren't doing anything special to mark Bonds' somewhat tainted achievement.

But the sports networks are eager to carry a game in which Bonds has the chance to tie or break the all-time home run record of 755. Sports programming executives at both Walt Disney's (Charts, Fortune 500) ESPN and News Corp.'s (Charts, Fortune 500) Fox have talked to Major League Baseball about the chance to carry an extra game outside their normal baseball broadcast schedule if and when Bonds has a chance at history.

No decision on such extra broadcasts has yet been made, though, said MLB spokesman Pat Courtney.

At the very least ESPN hopes to be able to break into its other programming to show each Bonds at-bat it can live once he's got a chance to tie or break the record.

There are many sportswriters, sports talk radio hosts and some fans who are angry that Bonds may soon have one of the most prestigious records in sports to his name. They believe the allegations about the Giants slugger using steroids, while never proven by baseball or in court, casts a "shadow" over the record.

In 1961, as Roger Maris made his run at the single-season home run record, then commissioner Ford Frick declared that Maris would have to hit the record breaker in the season's first 154 games, the length of the season when Babe Ruth played, in order to wipe Ruth's mark out of the record books.

The so-called "asterisk decree" killed much of the late-season interest that had built throughout the summer in the home run chase. The Yankees drew only 19,401 to the game when Maris hit his 60th home run to tie Ruth, and only 23,154 to their last game of the season when Maris hit his 61st home run, leaving more than half the seats empty for both games.

But Len DeLuca, senior vice president for programming and acquisitions at ESPN, said he doesn't believe that fan interest will be hurt by those calling for Bonds to have his own version of the asterisk attached to the record. If anything, he thinks it will heighten interest in the event.

"The controversy, as all controversies do, have heightened this beyond the typical sports fans," he said. "Now you have the combination of the importance of the record plus the controversy surrounding it. It's a perfect storm of a major sports milestone."

The Labor Day game in which Mark McGwire tied Maris' record in 1998 produced the highest rated non-football broadcast in ESPN history. The next night when Fox aired an extra game in which McGwire broke the record, it was watched in nearly 13 percent of U.S. households, or better than Fox saw for the first two games of that year's World Series.

When Bonds broke McGwire's record three years later, it had a miniscule 1.7 rating.

Part of that may be because Bonds was considerably less popular than McGwire and Sammy Sosa had been in 1998, or because the home run totals between 1998 and 2001 made his run at the record seem less historic. Or it could be because three weeks after 9/11, all sports seemed far less important than they had in 1998.

But it also could have been because it was a night game on the West Coast, too late for many viewers.

Short of an injury or suspension, Bonds will be breaking a record that Hank Aaron has held since he passed Ruth in 1974. And the length that the record has stood will likely overcome any disdain for Bonds, or questions about how he hit many of the homers, when it comes to fan interest.

Aaron's chase of Ruth was also hated by many fans at the time, albeit because of racism - which was a stain on the character of the fans, not the player. It was also probably less widespread than the current concerns about the message that Bonds sends about cheating or drug abuse.

Even with the racism of the day, Aaron's record-breaking homer, shown nationwide on an NBC Monday night broadcast, was watched in 22 percent of U.S. homes, more than were watching "Monday Night Football" in 1973 or 1974, during that show's heyday.

There's no chance that Bonds will see the ratings that Aaron did in those pre-cable days. But his home run likely will come on one of the best-watched baseball games this season, viewed live by more fans than likely will tune into many of this year's playoff games.

The two factors most likely to hit ratings would be if he breaks the mark on a night game on the West Coast, or if he stalls once he gets to 754 or 755 home runs.

In addition, you can bet that he'll hit the home run in a sold-out or nearly sold-out stadium, even if he's on the road.

Online ticket resale service has already seen its customers sell more than 500 seats for Giants home games in late June and early July against San Diego and Arizona, as well as more than 500 for a Giants game in St. Louis on July 7.

StubHub spokesman Sean Pate said he would expect ticket resales, and ticket prices, to shoot higher as Bonds gets closer to Aaron's 755 mark.

"Being nine homers away, people aren't focused on it yet," Pate said. "The true test will be what people are willing to pay for a ticket on the road."

But he said he has no doubt that the stadium will be sold out when he does cross that mark.

(Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to the record Bonds is gunning for this season. regrets the error.) Top of page