Now that the World Baseball Classic is in the books, most of the attention seems to be turning to how effective it has been in raising the profile of baseball around the world, and how it can be improved moving forward.
No one disputes that it’s beneficial for baseball to have a global event that exposes casual sports fans to a game they might not otherwise see. The World Baseball Classic fills the gap left by the omission of baseball from the Olympic program, but it is failing to make the breakthrough outside the traditional baseball countries.
From the European perspective, despite having three nations represented, Italy, Spain and the fourth-placed Netherlands, the competition has made little impact. Baseball is never going to compete with soccer on the European stage, but there are a few simple steps which would make the 2017 edition more appealing.
The best players need to be playing. This might sound obvious, but it would be unthinkable for the soccer World Cup to take place without the game’s top players. The undoubted highlights of the World Baseball Classic for Team USA was the pitching of Gio Gonzalez and the hitting of David Wright. The main problem with the current format is going to be with pitchers, in addition to finding space in the already overcrowded MLB schedule.
The simplest way round this is to start spring training at the beginning of February and then shut it down for two to three weeks at the start of March for the WBC. The players who aren’t selected could continue to prepare with exhibition games, and the top players would be involved in games which would be much better preparation than Cactus League or Grapefruit League games.
More effort needs to be made to engage the fans. In the majority of European countries, World Baseball Classic games were hard to find on TV, and even then, most of the games, including the final round, were starting in the middle of the night. If we really want new fans to come to the games, there should be a good mix of start times for all time zones, and most importantly, all the games should be available, live and on demand, for free. It may lead to a short-term financial loss, but it may attract more people to purchase an MLB.TV regular-season subscription.
Players need to be from the countries they are representing. This happens in all sports, a weaker nation tries to bulk out its roster by finding a way round rules governing who can appear. This is more of a problem for the European sides, the Italians fielding Anthony Rizzo and Nick Punto this time round. A stricter policy may take time to bear fruit, but it could ultimately encourage athletes from around the world to look to baseball as a serious career option. It may even help the development of upcoming leagues around the world.
These changes will take time to evolve and would not be popular with everyone, but if all parties involved show a desire for a common goal, they would move the World Baseball Classic and the global appeal of baseball in the direction we all want.