Mixed emotions tend to surface when the World Baseball Classic comes around. It means an earlier start to spring training and an early glance at some competitive baseball. But the excitement that surrounds other national competitions, lacks at the WBC.
Various national radio sports shows I listened to throughout the week mentioned the WBC only to crack jokes. The only media people genuinely interested are baseball writers.
Ken Rosenthal recently wrote about the benefits the WBC brings to baseball. World exposure being the key to this tournament, the WBC has so far accomplished that goal. A 15,000 seat stadium being built in the Netherlands will be the top baseball facility in Europe. Baseball now has 11 different TV partners in China. Australia has re-launched the Australia Baseball League. 20 academies are in the works, giving Brazilians another option if they can’t do a pedalada,
But it makes sense the WBC doesn’t get any attention. The United States gets to see the best of the best play baseball for seven months. Why would they pay any attention to a glorified All-Star game. If Italy played Australia at Petco Park tomorrow, how many locals would go? If Mexico played Italy tomorrow, it would only be a slightly higher attendance. USA versus Mexico at Petco Park would be the only game that would attract more than 20,000 people.
If the founders of the sport can’t find an interest, why would anyone else?
One of the problems lies with too many elite American players declining invitations to play in the tournament. The WBC is asking the likes of Mark Teixeira and Ryan Braun to leave their spring training routine and employers, to play a few pick-up games representing the United States. It is a very honorable thing to do but honor does not pay the bills and if people do not go out to the games, what is the point. (Teixeira strained his forearm during light batting practice and is out of the WBC)
Hockey, rugby, cricket and basketball have a lower defection rate when participating in world competitions than baseball. The same injury concerns exist for these athletes making it even more frustrating because hockey and rugby players compete in direct contact sports.
This is not a fair comparison but FIFA’s World Cup is so popular because FIFA makes sure people know it is a big deal; the biggest deal in soccer. In a sport that requires more chemistry than baseball, these national soccer teams train sporadically and gain much of their cohesiveness over the course of exhibition games. Games played during the World Cup tend to not match the stage they are being played on.
But people still pack the stadiums! Why? To be able to say, “I went to Qatar 2022.” Yes Qatar will host the tournament and yes the majority of the games will sell out. Qatar has never qualified to participate in the World Cup yet the tournament will unite the nation and for one month its citizens will be soccer’s biggest fans.
And there is the trigger. FIFA’s World Cup is as much about the games as it is about the atmosphere the host nation provides. It gets the casual sports fan to say, “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
Baseball can do the same thing. The sport does not have to be the global super power soccer is. Bud Selig and Co. need to provide an experience for the fans. An atmosphere in host’s cities, making sure that everyone in each host city knows what is going on and will choose to go to a WBC event over their routine amusement.
Moving the date of the tournament would be a start.
Matt Wieters, the Baltimore Orioles young catcher, told the Baltimore Sun, “I’d love to be able to play for my country, but at the same time, you have responsibilities to your team and responsibilities, for me, to the pitching staff—to be able to get to know them and go through spring training with them.”
Hosting the tournament in November would have less players declining invitations due to the reason Wieters expressed. It would also keep the WBC from competing with March Madness, and hockey’s and basketball’s playoff pushes. It would still leave them jousting with football for ratings but it would be an easier battle due to less games being played throughout the week.
The World Baseball Classic is young and irrelevant enough to endure drastic changes. Those changes need to come very soon. Baseball in the Olympics has disappeared. If the WBC cannot shift its way into relevancy, baseball will fail to blossom outside of the Caribbean.