It is the largest global sport not part of the Olympic programme now, and unless there is a big shift come September in popular sentiment, it will continue to be. The baseball/softball bid that moved to final consideration in September o to return to the Games in 2020 was surprising to some, but in the end, especially given the NHL’s announcement about stopping their season, may be very hard to move to the next stage with the powers that be of the IOC.
Baseball has enjoyed varying degrees of success in the Games, the most memorable coming when Tommy LaSorda’s Team USA captured gold in Barcelona, in front of the very supportive president of the IOC, Juan Antonio Samaranch. A host of players from those games, as well as games prior and through the Beijing Games, went on to MLB success both from the US and other countries, and Major league baseball has spent millions on their own developing the sport globally.
Still, the issue of having the best players play, even in a shortened format, is what many have indicated the IOC wants, and that is something MLB has not supported in this go-round after the sport was voted out of the Games for 2012. The combined baseball/softball bid, which helps with the issue of more women athletes, the huge advancements MLB has made with drug testing, and the growth of the game in many key markets all helps, but in the end it appears that baseball’s brightest stars and its leadership would prefer the game shine elsewhere outside the Olympic window.
The continued growth of The World Baseball Classic as the destination every few years for a global baseball champion, and the fact the baseball in the Olympic wasn’t hardly mentioned during last week’s All-Star festivities (which could have given the bid a huge international push in awareness) leads those in the business to believe that MLB is OK with the current state of affairs, and that the business risks for season interruption are too great for 2020.
Unlike hockey, there has been no outcry of players to participate in the Olympics, there has been little public push in baseball-savvy countries, and the leaders of the sport on the highest professional level have been supportive but not dogmatic in their push to get the game back in the Games. Hockey also has an advantage of having a TV partner in NBC who is also heavily invested in the Olympic programme…baseball does not have such a partner. Recent years the elite professional team sports have appeared to be distancing themselves from Olympic competition; soccer has a rule that would never stop elite leagues and has only under 23 players participate in the Games, and there have been rumblings that at some point the NBA could follow suit with their World Championships. The NHL also looked at such a model…one that brings all the revenue to the sport in a window that makes sense in the calendar, and avoids some of the hurdles Olympic participation takes on, much in the way baseball has developed the WBC and soccer the World Cup. However the NHL move back was a slight change in direction for team sports, and it remains to be seen which way basketball could go in the future.
For softball, the sad thing is that the Olympics raises the sport to levels it doesn’t do for baseball. The joint bid probably should have happened years ago, and it certainly boosted baseball’s chance this time. Whether it works, especially with hockey now agreeing to the season cessation, is not a good message for baseball supporters.
Does baseball belong in the Games? Yes it probably does, and having rising stars play that will help grow the sport seems like a fair compromise and one that can help emerging nations and even new brands engage in the sport. Will it get back in? Tough to say. MLB has been supportive on so many fronts, but will bend but not break it appears with player involvement at this point. Without that, it may be a swing and a miss for a sport long on global growth and revenue, but short on star commitment for the leaders in IOC leaders in Lausanne.