Baseball’s third attempt at a World Cup-style event started late last week in Japan and Taiwan, with teams from both of those nations joining clubs from Cuba, Brazil, China, Australia, the Netherlands, and South Korea in a round-robin playoff. Team USA is also taking the field — their first game is Friday in Phoenix, when they’ll play against Mexico. Teams from Canada and Italy are also playing their pool games in Arizona, while squads from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, and Venezuela face off in Puerto Rico.
If you’re not exactly pumped for the World Baseball Classic (WBC), we’re betting you’re not alone. As Jon Michuad points out in The New Yorker:
W.B.C. organizers are touting the array of major-league stars who will be participating, including triple-crown winner Miguel Cabrera (Venezuela), Joey Votto (Canada), Adrian Gonzalez (Mexico), Jose Reyes (Domincan Republic), Carlos Beltran (Puerto Rico), Gio Gonzalez, Giancarlo Stanton, Ryan Braun, and David Wright (U.S.A.). It’s an impressive list, but the roster of players passing up the opportunity to don a national uniform this spring is even stronger. Buster Posey, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, Albert Pujols, Ichiro Suzuki, Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Johnny Cueto, and Johan Santana are all giving the W.B.C. a pass. Those big-name deferrals are a major reason why the W.B.C. still lags significantly behind the international tournaments of other sports in generating fan passion and television ratings. It would be unthinkable for a comparable list of footballers, cricketers, or rugby players to sit out their respective World Cups. Nor do we see the same scale of defections among N.B.A. and N.H.L. players when the Olympics come around. If so many of baseball’s best players don’t seem to care about the W.B.C. then, why should the fans?
But is a dearth of star players really hurting the WBC? Over at Awfulannouncing.com, Joe Lucia writes:
When you start reading columns about why the WBC isn’t taking off this year, and why ratings are cratering, and why there’s a complete lack of chatter about the games, don’t buy the argument that no one in America cares about the WBC because Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Buster Posey aren’t playing. Is anyone really sitting there and saying “you know what, I was going to watch this WBC game between the US and Canada, but Adam Jones is playing center field instead of Mike Trout. Screw this!” Of course not. It reminds me a lot of people getting riled up about players dropping out of the All-Star Game. The biggest stars skipping the game has nothing to do with the ratings tanking. A stale format and a league that is seeing its television popularity waning has much more to do with people tuning out than a few players opting to take four days off to rest nagging injuries.
Comparing the WBC to the All-Star game isn’t perfect. Lucia’s right that All-Star game ratings would still be low even if every star showed up, since viewers are smart enough to realize that despite the (utterly unfair) rule giving the league that wins the All-Star game home-field advantage in the World Series, the game is a boring exhibition. People have better things to do on a mid-July summer evening.
However, if more big names from the U.S. major leagues played in the WBC, it would surely attract more domestic attention. These WBC games don’t count in the major league standings. But international pride, rather than home field advantage for the World Series — which, odds are, won’t involve your favorite team — is a more compelling storyline.
But even if players like Strasburg and Harper and Trout all participated, the WBC would face larger structural issues. Unlike soccer (where World Cup is king), hockey (Miracle on Ice!), and basketball (the Dream Team!), international competition is not in baseball’s DNA. Moreover, who is Team USA’s big rival in this competition? Rivalries drive ratings, always. A U.S.-China matchup would carry some geo-political intrigue; but China won’t advance out of pool play.
Sure, this is only the WBC’s third event, and baseball’s entry into the global competition market has to start somewhere. But the odds of an international baseball competition catching fire would be better if, like basketball and hockey, it was attached to the marketing machine of the Olympics. Baseball was part of the Olympics at one time, but the MLB wasn’t willing to interrupt its summer season for an Olympic tournament, and lend its richest assets — players — to the five-ring circus (hockey made this deal, and fans have benefited). It’s hard to manufacture an international extravaganza decades after other sports have done so. And with the event failing to catch on early, there’s little incentive for millionaire players to risk injury and inconvenience by participating. This indifference feeds on itself.
We’re rooting for the WBC — it’s better fare than boring spring training games. But we’re not betting on its long-term success.