The Business of the All-Star Game

The All-Star Game is Major League Baseball’s version of the Super Bowl: a showcase awarded by MLB to a “deserving” host city. That city spends three days as the hub of the baseball universe, its hotels housing MLB executives, corporate bigwigs, and hundreds of out-of-town journalists – not to mention the one out of 15 players who has earned the title “All-Star.”

Not surprisingly, politics plays a huge role in the selection process. In 1995 the AL awarded the 1999 All-Star Game to Milwaukee -- no, not to reward Acting Commissioner Selig for leading MLB into yet another ruinous labor war, but because the Brewers expected to be moving into a new stadium this year. Boston received the 2001 All-Star Game, planned as a celebration of the American League’s centennial in the league’s most historic park. By 1997, it had become clear that Milwaukee’s Miller Park wouldn’t be ready for the 1999 season – so Bud Selig simply swapped All-Star dates with his good friend John Harrington. Don’t forget to send Bud a thank-you card.

Boston fans are lucky Bud and John get along so well, as MLB prefers to dangle the All-Star Game as a reward for cities which construct new parks. The last four All-Star Games played in AL cities went to Toronto, Baltimore, Texas and Cleveland, each of which had just built new stadia. MLB’s strategy this gives its clubs even more leverage when negotiating with their cities for new parks.

The National League has made the link even more explicit. Last winter the NL moved the 2000 All-Star Game from Florida, which had been awarded the game in 1995, to Atlanta’s new Turner Field. NL president Leonard Coleman explained, “The National League has decided the All-Star Game should be played in new facilities, except in special circumstances.” Cold comfort to Joe Henry, the Marlins’ new owner, who was counting on the All-Star Game to boost local interest in a club nearly destroyed by Wayne Huizenga’s fire sale.

In fact, as disappointed Bostonians now realize, an All-Star Game gives devoted fans a major incentive to buy season tickets. Dan Duquette announced on March 15 that no All-Star Game tickets would be sold to the public because season ticket holders and MLB had already claimed every seat in Fenway. “We have one of the smallest ballparks in the major leagues and our first commitment is to our season ticket holders,'' explained Duquette. “The remainder of the tickets must be given to Major League Baseball.”

With two-thirds of the seats reserved for season ticket holders, according to the Sox, this means that MLB has claimed about 11,000 seats.

Eleven thousand seats? That’s enough for MLB to give 200 tickets to every club and still have 5,000 left over for its friends and patrons. If you’re not a season ticket holder, perhaps it’s not too late to land a job with Anheuser-Busch or Fox Sports -- or at least find a second job so you can afford scalper’s prices.

But even if ordinary fans can’t always find their way into the All-Star Game, the game itself remains as popular as ever. The first All-Star Game, played in Comiskey Park in 1933, was conceived as a one-shot promotion. Press and public support immediately turned it into an annual event. The All-Star Game is regularly the week’s most-watched TV program, a three-hour commercial for the National Pastime featuring its finest performers.

These players aren’t paid to participate in the All-Star Game. Nonetheless, they all benefit. Those who don’t make the team get a three-day vacation. Those who do receive national exposure – and, in many cases, cash bonuses. Such bonuses are typically worth $25,000 or $50,000, but can rise much higher. For example, the Sox will pay Jose Offerman $100,000 for his first All-Star selection, $250,000 if he’s picked a second time, and $500,000 if he makes three All-Star teams in four years.

Most importantly for the players, the All-Star Game has long financed their pension plan. When the plan was formed in 1947, the owners’ contributions were funded by the net proceeds of the All-Star Game, together with TV and radio revenue from the World Series. In 1954 MLB guaranteed that the pension plan would receive 60% of All-Star Game revenues, a figure which rose to 95% in 1963.

When the TV money grew too large, MLB severed the link between All-Star money and the pension fund. But the pension agreement still requires the owners to pay 1/7th of their annual contribution shortly after the game, and allows them to skip this payment if there’s no All-Star Game. Under the circumstances, it’s no coincidence that even the 1981 and 1994 labor disputes did not force cancellation of the All-Star Game.

So even if you spend July 13 on the same bar stool you occupied during last year’s All-Star telecast from Coors Field, take some comfort in knowing that fan interest helps assure a comfortable retirement for the heroes of your youth. Eventually Trot Nixon and Scott Hatteberg will benefit, too.

Copyright © 1999 Doug Pappas. All rights reserved.
Originally published in the special 1999 All-Star Game issue of Boston Baseball.

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