- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

CHICAGO — Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig insists the added significance of the All-Star Game is not a direct result of last year’s debacle in Milwaukee.

But it is hard to argue the results of last year’s contest: an ugly 7-7 tie in Selig’s hometown and the event’s worst TV ratings. And it is hard to argue baseball’s need to spice up an increasingly dull event that is now known as much for who skips the game as for who plays.

However, the change for tomorrow’s game at U.S. Cellular Field — the winning league will be awarded home-field advantage in the World Series — has prompted enthusiasm at Fox Sports and many of baseball’s corporate partners the likes of which has not been seen in years.

Fox Sports president Ed Goren is predicting an increase in ratings of at least 10 percent over last year. Ad slots for the broadcast already are sold out at an average of $325,000 for a 30-second spot, about 9 percent better than 2002.

Each of Major League Baseball’s top-level sponsors, including corporate heavy hitters Pepsi, MasterCard and John Hancock, are conducting extensive promotional campaigns centered on the game.

Fox and Major League Baseball (MLB) are combining on an ad campaign valued at more than $10 million to promote the game. The tagline for the campaign is “This Time It Counts.”

The bigger question is: Even if it counts, does America care?

MLB executives think the answer is yes, despite the fact that TV viewership of the All-Star Game has declined 33 percent since 1994. They point to a vigorous nationwide debate over the absence from tomorrow’s game of luminaries like Pedro Martinez, Sammy Sosa, Mike Mussina and Roger Clemens.

“We’re very excited about this year,” said Tim Brosnan, MLB executive vice president for business. “There has been a lot of debate about ‘the change’ to this year’s game, and of course, plenty of debate about the rosters. Our basic view is that we’re healthiest when people are fully engaged and debating our game.

“We should be worried when people stop talking about us.”

Brosnan also said corporate response to the change has been positive.

“Fox is completely sold out in ad time and is still getting calls, which is a great problem to have. Our corporate sponsors could not have been more affirming about what we’re doing,” he said. “We’re seeing significant upside to this.”

Previously, home-field advantage in the World Series alternated annually between the leagues.

“This is replacing something that was extremely arbitrary,” said Goren, who voiced his support for the switch for months. “It’s not as if this was replacing a system that everyone bought into.”

The linking of the All-Star Game to home-field advantage in the World Series was not the only change to the Midsummer Classic.

Rosters were expanded to 32 players from 30 and are the result of a new selection process that involves the votes of players. The changes all were made on a two-year trial basis. Those measures were needed to get approval on extra weight of the game from the MLB Players Association, which initially had deep reservations about the switch.

Even after the union signed off on the changes in early May, criticism continued. HBO and NBC sportscaster Bob Costas called the switch “incredibly dumb” and a move that takes “the least typical game of the season … and [has] it affect the outcome of the most important game of the season, Game 7 of the World Series.”

And one of the elements of the game that remains unchanged — a requirement that each team be represented by at least one player — has produced some eyebrow-raising results. Pittsburgh Pirates reliever Mike Williams enters the game with a 1-3 record and 6.44 ERA. Tampa Bay Devil Rays pitcher Lance Carter has a 4.05 ERA and six blown saves.

But Selig, a longtime baseball traditionalist, continues to push the need for the game to change with the times.

Though the original idea of granting home-field advantage in the World Series to the winning league in the All-Star Game dates to the 1950s, the current form of that proposal comes from Selig’s new marketing committee.

The broad-based panel, formed last fall, is charged with the open-ended task of finding all possible ways to make baseball more attractive to fans, particularly younger ones.

“I think this is an interesting approach,” said Bob Cramer, MasterCard vice president of global sponsorships and event marketing. “Hopefully, it will drive up ratings. I’m interested to see if the game really does become more competitive.

“But anything designed to improve one of the crown jewels of the sport can only be a positive for us.”

Baseball also is relying on the World Series itself to make the All-Star switch work. The home team has won the World Series each of the past eight times the series has gone to a decisive Game 7, a streak that dates to 1982.

The change presents an opportunity for some players and managers. Dusty Baker, who manages the Chicago Cubs and the National League team, is one of them.

“It’s going to be interesting to watch how Dusty Baker goes through this game,” Fox Sports announcer Joe Buck said. “He’s got a team that could very well win the division, and he may be a direct benefactor of winning the All-Star Game. … He’s got every reason to win this game.”

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