- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game somehow manages to exist as both one of the most beloved and heavily criticized sporting events of the year.

The game is one of sports’ most history-rich events and usually features compelling action. But the game often hurts itself with controversy - the tie in 2002, for example, or the debate over whether the game should determine who gets home-field advantage in the World Series.

No matter the feeling of fans, baseball and its broadcast partner, Fox, put a lot of effort into making the night special, and corporate sponsors have followed with some creative promotions.

Tuesday’s game is generating greater buzz than usual in large part because President Obama is scheduled to throw out the first pitch, making him the first head of state to do so since Gerald Ford more than three decades ago. Obama agreed to appear, baseball officials said, because of his support of the league plan to use the game to promote volunteering and community involvement.

Obama also will appear in a seven-minute video preceding a ceremony to honor 30 fans singled out for their efforts to give back.

“We’d been planning this for a long time, and given the economy and given really the mood of the country we felt that a focus on both community service and charitable initiatives was something we could do and baseball could get involved in,” Selig said. “The game itself I’m sure will be extraordinary, but I’m sure it will be a very unique pregame ceremony.”

The theme of giving back also carried over to corporate sponsors. Mastercard, for example, will donate $1 million for every home run that hits a “Hit it Here” sign in Busch Stadium during Tuesday’s game or the home run derby Monday. In the past, a struck sign usually meant $1 million given to a lucky fan.

Aquafina, meanwhile, was announced last week as the sponsor of the Major League Pitch, Hit and Run Competition, which will hold its national final during All-Star weekend in St. Louis.

Major League Baseball has done a remarkable job of drumming up interest in the game, encouraging clubs to promote online voting for their top players. And its decision a few years ago to add a special online ballot for the “final player” to be added to each roster is playing out dramatically this year - the Phillies’ Shane Victorino and the Giants’ Pablo Sandoval have been in a neck-and-neck race over the last several days.

It’s common for fans to criticize the game’s television ratings, which have gradually dwindled over the years. The contest once drew the attention of nearly half of all U.S. households, but games this decade earned ratings from 8.0 to 11.0 on the Nielsen scale.

Looking at the situation broadly, the All-Star Game still is one of the most-watched programs of the summer, has easily scored winning nights for Fox and attracts strong viewership in all the desirable demos.

On a Tuesday night in the summertime, what’s more desirable programming - a baseball game featuring all of the best players or an episode of “So You Think You Can Dance”?

In any case, sponsors haven’t shied away, even as corporate spending declines. Fox officials reported that all of the network’s ad inventory for the game is sold.

“It’s viewed strongly and still has a lot of fan appeal,” said Chuck Costigan, a sponsorship consultant in Westminster, Colo. “And that says it all. It is always viewed a little differently than the [NFL Pro Bowl], and the players put a pretty good effort into it.”

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