Author: Joe Siegal
The World Baseball Classic (WBC), in its third iteration this spring, is meant to be baseball’s answer to soccer’s World Cup; an international showcase every four years for a sport that is immensely popular across cultures, languages and political borders. However, even as the tournament thrives abroad, the way in which Major League Baseball (MLB) has organized, presented and discussed the WBC is hindering its potential appeal in the United States.
Since the Olympic Committee removed baseball from the Olympics after the 2008 Beijing games, the WBC, brainchild and pet project of MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, has stood as the only true international competition for the sport. A major problem with Olympic baseball was its awkward timing during the dog days of August at the end of the big league season. The Olympic schedule mitigated the participation of big league players, so the WBC has tried to avoid conflict by coinciding instead with Spring Training for MLB teams. As a result though, younger, talented players seem to be choosing their respective March and April MLB training camps in preparation for the main event that is the MLB season over the WBC, prioritizing their chance at a big league roster spot and making WBC teams less compelling to watch.
Additionally, after being egged on by nervous big league clubs, the WBC instituted Little League-esque rules to protect players from injury and exhaustion. By enforcing pitch counts for pitchers and mercy rules for blowout games, it’s hard to deny that the WBC has a bit of an exhibition feel.
Despite the tepid participation from players and the tournament’s rule changes, the WBC seems to be catching on in markets that are important to MLB such as Japan, Taiwan and Korea, while floundering in the United States.
This is partially due to the media structured around the tournament. MLB Network has a limited market when compared to say, ESPN, which broadcasts the WBC in various different languages. MLB Network’s ratings for the tournament pale in comparison to the ratings accrued, for example, in Japan, where the WBC has been watched more than this past summer’s London Olympics.
It’s not a coincidence that two-time winner Japan shows more national interest in the games as players from Nippon Professional Baseball, Japan’s big league, participate at a fairly high rate and with great success. Knocked out of this year’s tournament by Puerto Rico, the U.S. has never medaled in the WBC.
Saying that the WBC is not living up to its intended purpose because Americans aren’t interested is incorrect. The league should realize, though, that it can make changes that could propel the WBC to higher levels of competition and interest at home like placing a tournament like the WBC earlier in the off season and not during Spring Training or right before the playoffs. For now, the WBC is a work in progress, with the hegemony of MLB the only thing standing in the way of this potentially massive event.
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