If you ask people what they think the single biggest global sport has been for the last 50 years, most are going to say soccer.
Soccer hosts the most successful World Cup-style tournament in professional sport. Each year around 3.5 billion people tune in, making it the most-viewed sporting event in the world, other than the Olympics. Even countries where soccer isn’t especially popular by global standards, like Australia and the USA, are captivated by the tournament.
Even rugby, a sport that doesn’t have anywhere near the global reach of soccer, hosts a successful World Cup every four years.
The reality is, with the right structure in place, baseball could emulate these two examples, and use a World Cup tournament to promote the global popularity of the sport.
In fact, the groundwork is already there – as Baseball Jobs Overseas members are aware, aside from Latin America, Asia and Australia, there are a number of European countries have quality national baseball teams.
Having a simple but well-run World Cup tournament would do wonders to promote the sport internationally.
Here’s how this might be achieved.
What’s already being done?
As some have quite rightly pointed out, having “World” in the title of the “World Series” is a little disingenuous, given that only American and Canadian teams play in the Major League.
From 1938 to 2011, an annual Baseball World Cup was officially held. It attracted decent international involvement, but was never taken especially seriously. This is part of the reason it was recently discontinued.
However, the other reason that the World Cup was canned was there was too much dilution. The Olympics held baseball tournaments up until 2008, and there is also a World Baseball Classic event, which is now the de-facto baseball world cup. Held every four years, this tournament has had more success than the official world cup did, with the 2017 edition seeing an average attendance of more than 24,000 (72%).
This shows that there is potential for a world cup of baseball to see success. But if the tournament is to truly capture the world’s attention, there are a few issues that need to be dealt with first.
The MLB has been trying to push baseball into international markets for a while now. It held MLB games in London, starting in 2019, with more games planned for 2020.
There’s a bit of a problem with this approach. Very few Londoners have any emotional investment in an MLB team. It would be like the NFL holding the Superbowl in Helsinki, Finland. Many Finns would probably attend it for the novelty (as the British did with the London Series), but it’s not going to get people really interested in the sport.
What the MLB needs to do is help the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) promote international tournaments in which countries can actually compete as a national team. This gives crowds a reason to get invested in the outcome of a match, and find out more about the sport of baseball. If they can see that their country has already built a team, this demonstrates that there are already people playing the sport in their country. Most people don’t know how global baseball actually is, unless they’re shown the evidence first-hand.
It’s important to remember though that the MLB is not the governing body of baseball. They serve the commercial interests of their clubs, not necessarily the good of the game globally. There are other ways the sport can work towards creating a world cup of baseball.
You can’t have a World Cup dominated by a single country every year. To make this work, we need to increase youth participation in baseball in foreign countries. With more demand, foreign youth-level competitions will be forced to expand, improving the quality of each nation’s international team in the long term.
Fortunately, baseball has a lot of things going for it.
- It’s very easy (and quite cheap) to begin playing. Not much equipment is required, especially when compared to something like football or hockey.
- Compared to most other sports, there is less risk of serious injury, especially at a youth level.
- The field is really easy to set up. There’s no need for goalposts, hoops, or artificial turf for instance.
To increase international participation in baseball, these benefits really need to be better-sold in foreign countries.
It’s simply not enough to just play a few MLB games overseas and hope that more people begin to watch or play. You actually have to show people (or parents) why they (or their kids) should get involved, and how they can do it.
The tournament set up
Let’s assume for a moment that we can generate a good amount of international interest in a baseball World Cup. What would be the best way to set the tournament up? Or, what’s wrong with the World Baseball Classic?
The first issue is that the best players don’t always play. Some might consider this a positive, because it means that the USA doesn’t necessarily stomp the competition every year. However, people want to see the best of the best play. That’s what a “World Cup” is all about.
Second of all, the tournament format is very unforgiving. A couple off games could see you knocked out. This is a tricky issue, because more games would make the tournament much less fun to watch. However, it’s important that countries feel they have a fair shot of winning the cup.
Finally, the competition is held at the wrong time of year. It’s in March, right before the MLB season kicks off. For most pros, they want to spend their pre-season fine-tuning their technique, not playing a bunch of essentially meaningless matches right before the start of the season. Moving it December or January, or making the tournament more meaningful (through financial incentives) would make things much more interesting.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the MLB is going to see much point in investing in this tournament, to make it something that players actually care about. To kick things off, we, as the international baseball community, need to show how popular baseball can become in foreign markets. This way, the league might see more of a need to help the WBSC invest in grassroots baseball, rather than just having its teams play a token match or two in Europe each season.
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