Success is sometimes how you define it. If you look at the World Baseball Classic as a vehicle about American baseball and fandom, then you walk away from this year’s event scratching your head. Team USA, without the requisite stars, once again failed to reach the final round. So chalk up an L for the event.
However if you look at the event as a way to grow the sport globally, it’s hard to say that the WBC doesn’t achieve its purpose in only its third iteration. Record TV numbers aboard, record traffic in the digital space, more cumulative viewers for a network only a few tears old than it has had for any game or series not in the postseason, the rejuvenation of the sport in a key growth area, strong crowds of the country’s fastest growing ethnic population showing up in droves to see games, and thousands of global impressions in the media. Throw in some new sponsors and added value for some longtime MLB partners, and if those are your parameters, then the event did its job.
If MLB’s roles, as stated from the beginning, was to use the event as a way to expand the footprint of baseball globally, then how could the event be deemed a failure. Live baseball being show in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the new interest in an emerging economy in Brazil, the reinforcement of the game in a place where the game has some roots in Italy, the very important excitement that event generated in Puerto Rico, where the sport had been slipping away, not to mention the overwhelming success of the Dominican Republic, and the event looks like a winner. Japan, the two time champion, had issues when it came to the States, and their player support problem is similar to that of the U.S., but for the other Asian nations that made the field the event was a draw and a news happening.
For the Americans that participated, the experience appeared to be a string one. As the U.S. came closer to the final round before being pushed out by Puerto Rico, there was even talk of some of the young stars like Bryce Harper already watching and pledging allegiance for the next go-round. Maybe that type of enthusiasm can sway teams and agents who held players back again this time. The injury factor? Injuries can happen anywhere, Mark Teixeira’s wrist, hitting off a tee, had nothing to do with the jersey he wore that day. Are there risks? Sure. But there are risks in playing in any spring training game.
At the end of the day, the WBC is still a work in progress. Maybe there is a slightly better time and format to create a country vs. country championship for pride that will grow the game. However the event generated the interest in a large way in the game at a time where hoops and hockey are still ruling the roost, and most importantly, it gives global baseball as a brand a showcase. That showcase, given the pressures the game is under to expand, is essential for the long term health of the sport. Soccer and basketball, individual sports, and properties like cricket and rugby, have taken their shots eroding the grassroots efforts of baseball, and have even taken some pieces of the core of the sport in the United States.
Is the WBC needed to keep American baseball fans glued to their seats? No. it is needed to reinforce the worldwide positioning of the sport, and to shore up emerging programs where future stars can also come from.
To say the global growth of baseball is not needed because of its place in America is a very dangerous game to play. All sports to be successful and lucrative at the highest levels need a global footprint. It’s why even American football is trying still to find a niche abroad. Now that’s probably not for the fan of baseball today to worry about. His or her game is doing more than just fine. However for the stewards of the game, the look always must be to the future, to the young consumer who may engage in the sport as a brand way down the road, the only way to do that is to enhance and grow in places where the game can or mat emerge, and that’s where the WBC fit in.
It wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t All-American, but it was engaging it was multi-ethnic, and it helped move brand baseball ahead. Now on to Opening Day.