Baseball is at a turning point where it will either dwindle into irrelevance except with a smaller and smaller amount of dedicated fans, or it will increase into worldwide relevance that rivals many of the great global games that the world has come to love.
But, the world needs two things from baseball in order to achieve this: one, a home team to root for in the name of a national team, and two, meaningful games!
The World Baseball Classic provides both of these!
Contrary to popular belief, most sports struggle in most countries, but what does not struggle are the top leagues that often feature on TV, and the national teams that those nations root for.
For example, everyone knows that Croatia is a very good nation in soccer, but did you know that the Croatian league only averages around 2,000 to 3,000 fans a game? Yes, the Oakland A’s abysmal 2022 season attendance (787,902 total attendance) was more than the 2021-2022 top level league (500,227 total attendance) for the current third best nation in what many consider to be the world’s most popular sport. Yet, when you look at Croatia’s six home matches in 2021 and 2022 leading up to the World Cup in Qatar, Croatia got over 124,000 people! Yes, in just six home matches, Croatia got more than one-fifth the amount of people their top league attained in 180 matches!
And, you can look at tons of leagues around the world and find the same results and often times, even lower results for attendance.
Yet, what draws many people to sports like soccer, basketball, and others like cricket is the chance to play for their nation and to root for their nation!
In England for example, their domestic cricket leagues often have viewership that peaks at around 600,000 at most with over 1 million people watching occasionally for very big matches, while their viewership for the cricket world cup in both the Twenty20 format and the ODI format often reaches between 3 and 8 million people.
Similarly, in South African rugby (union), the top professional league championship there in 2022 saw 737,500 people watch the event in South Africa as the DHL Stormers (Cape Town) defeated the Vodacom Bulls (Pretoria) in the URC Grand Final. The DHL Stormers were the most watched team in 2022 with a total of over 7.2 million people watching all of their matches last URC season. These are the numbers for the reigning World Cup Champion of a nation with close to 60 million people! Yet, for the South African National Team, the Springboks had over 3.9 million people watching their World Cup Final against England in 2019. And throughout their seven games, they had well above the 7.2 million threshold of the DHL Stormers season in 2022 that included 21 games. And the 2022 URC was consider a massive improvement in viewership. A more staggering number is in Japan where Japan Rugby League One – Division One often stuggles for viewership, but at the World Cup in 2019, Japan as a whole amassed a cumulative viewership of 425 million people and Japan’s 28-21 win over Scotland that sent Japan to the Quarterfinals had a viewership of 54.8 million in Japan alone, making that game the most watched domestic rugby event ever!
These realities show how popular the national teams are in places like Croatia, England, South Africa, and Japan where their national teams regularly outperform their leagues, even with the sports being popular in these nations.
And, just like cricket in England, soccer in Croatian, and rugby (union) in South Africa and Japan greatly benefits from their national teams, baseball also does in most nations.
Now, the WBC since its beginning has proven to be a very big deal in many nations and with each new edition, it has usually gotten more popular.
For example, in Japan alone, the first World Baseball Classic had 60 million people watching Samurai Japan win 10-6 over Cuba in the Championship, a number more than any World Series game ever, and keep in mind this number was just the number of viewers in Japan!
2009 saw more international viewership especially when Japan made it back to the Championship game, this time to play rivals South Korea. In fact, that game still has the most attendance out of any WBC game at slightly over 54,000 people!
2013 saw the rise in the Caribbean Nations where crime started to decrease and blonde dye would run out, while viewership eclipsed many previous records across the Americas.
2017 saw viewership reach unparalleled numbers in the USA, as well as attendance grow to 973,669 people, and this is with remembering that two of the stadiums used in the first round held under 17,000 fans.
But, the 2023 edition has seen the most success yet!
Attendance from the first round reached a whopping 1,010,999 people, which is more than the Oakland A’s and Miami Marlins total 2022 season attendance! Viewership was up all over the world with 62% of Puerto Rican TVs focusing on their WBC matchup with the Dominican Republic, and all Japan games featuring ratings above 42! Japan and South Korea for example had 70 million people watching it, and again, we do not know how many more were streaming the game and what the viewership was outside of Japan.
The WBC Championship also amassed a viewership number in the USA higher than all other WBC games ever. The WBC Championship Game got over an estimated 6.5 million viewers across TVs and streaming in the USA, a number that was over half the amount of viewers for the average of the 2022 World Series with over three million more than the average viewership for the 2022 Wild Card Round Games. The numbers were over one million more than that of the average for the NL Championship Series and almost two million more than the average for the AL Championship Series. As for the the rest of the tournament, the numbers in the USA for the national team have been averaging a rating simular to the Wild Card Series Round. Even more striking was the fact that Japan and Mexico had high viewership numbers in the USA too for their Semifinal. And it must be remembered that most of the tournament was on FS1 and FS2, channels that usually see an average of 300,000 people watch.
But, something more amazing was in-store for the World Baseball Classic in 2023, and that was the importance it played for important people such as players and the press in many areas.
We had seen previous editions of the World Baseball Classic immense the highest levels of a nation such as when former Panama’s President Martín Torrijos told MLB veteran Carlos Ruiz to play in 2009.
But, this edition was even more widespread for these stories.
Let us take Mexico where President Andrés Manuel López Obrador not only was able to get Cuban-born Randy Arozarena Mexican citizenship back in 2022, but furthermore has been getting people across the country to watch the national team via social media and press conferences. He has also been investing into the sport since he took over so that more kids make it to Major League Baseball and the Mexican top summer and winter leagues with new baseball academies being built around the country. Mexico’s success to third place took the country by storm with baseball dominating the front pages of almost all the major Mexican sports media, including on the day that famed Mexican soccer star, “Chucky” Lozano, took SSC Napoli to the UEFA Champions League Quarterfinals. This has created a wider spread conversation about how the Mexican media needs to highlight other sports more like baseball, taekwondo, basketball, and American football to name just four sports where Mexico also does well in. In addition, Randy Arozarena’s celebration became widespread across the country which contributed to baseball’s new fame.
The Bahamas and Great Britain were other nations where baseball has taken off, at least on a relative level in Great Britain. The British National Team was unique in including many baseball players from The Bahamas who decided to represent their parents’ former nation as Great Britain was much higher ranked and thus had a chance to qualify and did. And so naturally, The Bahamas got the WBC fever as a lot of the Bahamian sports media were focused on the British National Team for the four days it played, and basked in their glory when Great Britain upset Colombia 7-5 to win their first WBC game and to earn an automatic qualification to the 2026 WBC! While baseball has been a top sport in The Bahamas for awhile, with prominent Bahamians like Prime Minister Philip Davis being a huge baseball fan, it has suffered in that there is no Bahamian League for adults. But, the WBC has now encouraged The Bahamas to restart an adult league that may become professional in the future. This comes at a time when The Bahamas has built a new 5,000 seat national baseball stadium up to Major League standards in the capital Nassau that opened in December of 2022. In Great Britain itself, baseball featured on the front pages of online news like BBC Sport and even featured in class rooms across England. The British crowning and knighting for a home run celebration became big there too!
The Czech Republic became a baseball nation too for their four days in the competition, and when Japanese star Shohei Ohtani wore the Czech National Team hat while traveling to the WBC Semifinals with Japan, the Czech National Team hats sold out! In fact, 240,000 Czechs watched their national team take on Japan in Pool B making this the most watched baseball game in Czech Republic history.
Despite South Korea’s disappointing exit in the group stage, South Korea also saw a rise in their WBC viewership with the South Korea-Japan Pool B game having the most estimated viewers in South Korea for a WBC game since the 2009 South Korean-Japanese Championship Game.
In Chinese Taipei, viewership was way up and attendance numbers for the games in Taichung were quite impressive for a nation with far less people than the USA and Japan, the other nations who hosted the tournament.
While the numbers everywhere are not in yet, what we also know is that when you include the Quarterfinal, Semifinal, and Championship, the attendance rose to a record 1,306,414, a number more than the Cleveland Guardians, Kansas City Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays, Maimi Marlins, and Oakland A’s 2022 season attendance. And there were only 47 games in this year’s WBC.
The attendance and viewership across the world has been fun to see, but the respect given to the WBC has been almost equally as important for the WBC.
In the US, and a few other nations mainly Canada, the WBC was often seen as an exhibition by the big personalities in the media because MLB owners would make it very difficult for their players to play and other players would just opt out, and this mainly happened for Team USA.
This affected the publicization and advertising for the WBC that other competitions get when talked about on leading shows and written about in major publications and it also affected its legitimacy.
See, baseball already had a World Cup and was even is in the Olympics from time to time, but these tournaments were never treated as a true World Championship by many, especially in the USA, because MLB players could never participate either because of the International Baseball Federation’s rules (now World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC)), or Major League Baseball’s own rules. So, if the best do not play, how can you give a title for the best nation?
The World Baseball Classic was meant to change that and despite it allowing MLB players, and despite most nations including most of their best players, including Team USA such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr. playing, there were still murmurs that this could not be a true World Championship.
The 2017 WBC mostly changed that because Team USA won, and thus more people grew to like the tournament in the USA, and there also was no longer a need for excuses as to why the USA was not winning.
But, those murmurs still existed, especially among the large voices in the (US) American and Canadian media. And, one of the go-to reasonings was where is Mike Trout?
So, when Mike Trout decided to lead Team USA this year, it already eliminated some of the remaining murmurs. The star batting of Team USA including most of the best players from the USA, and thus the only place to go was to the pitching and managing of the USA, and the other teams.
Yet, after seeing the talent of the other nations, and seeing the importance of the event in places like Japan, the Republic of China (Taiwan/Chinese Taipei), Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, and others, it became apparent to many this year that the WBC was no joke.
The fact that every Japanese game saw over 40% of their nation watching their national team games, even with their 8 am matchups with Team Mexico and Team USA, was a testament to how important this tournament is.
There are of course still murmurs, but they keep getting fewer and fewer.
A big reason has been the overall support of the WBC by the players themselves. Mike Trout stated how the WBC was “the funnest experience” he has had on a baseball field, and five of six (R) Dominican players said how winning the WBC was more important than the World Series when asked in an inrerview. When asked after the WBC Championship, Shohei Ohtani said “[t]his was the best moment of [his] life.”
When people who are the best players in the world and others who have won a World Series are telling you how important the WBC is, you realize really how important it is.
This messaging was received by many in the (US) American and Canadian sports media, and on the day of the Championship game, all the talk was of the USA versus Japan Final!
No one could have foreseen either that the final at bat would come with Shohei Ohtani pitching against Mike Trout with Japan leading 3-2, but it did.
This moment solidified the WBC and showed that this really was the World Championship, this truly was the tournament for the best in the world!
On Wednesday, the sports shows from Fox Sports 1 to ESPN all featured post-game talk about the WBC Championship. Those part of the murmuring were quickly silenced such as when Stephen A. Smith silenced Chris Russo on First Take. Undisputed was all over the game with Shannon Sharpe claiming Shohei Ohtani is better than “Babe” Ruth as he struck out three MVPs to win the game. In the meantime, Skip Bayless brought up how it is true many (US) American pitchers were not there, but how the game mattered to “us”, to the USA. They both went on to analyze how amazing the last at bat was because it included the best players. And Shannon Sharpe and Skip Bayless both agreed how the USA had a lineup better than any and still Japan beat the USA, thus giving their approval to this World Championship too.
Respect was not just way up, but so was revenue. In all three locations where the World Baseball Classic was held, we saw revenues in the high millions, with the WBC itself seeing a revenue of anywhere between 90 to 100 million (US) Dollars.
Yet, how does baseball capitalize on this globalization of the sport?
How does baseball continue to play a role in our lives?
What we have seen from other sports is an expansion of national team competitions.
In some sports, this is mainly done through continental competitions such as in soccer, whereas in sports like cricket, it is primarily done via worldwide competitions. Some sports do both.
Luckily, baseball already has one to two other worldwide competitions they can immideately make into major competitions with the MLB’s blessing.
In November, held in between the Olympics and WBC is the WBSC Premier12, a competition that pits the best 12 ranked baseball nations in a competition that is not meant to be the world championship, but simply another competitive world tournament to get the people interested and attached to their teams. While all leagues are allowed to compete like the WBC, and while it is held in the MLB off-season, the MLB is yet to allow their players to play in it. However, if the MLB did allow their players to play in the Premier12, this would create more attachment and more fans for the national teams and thus create more baseball fans. The next event is likely to be held in 2025.
Then, MLB may be smart to explore the Olympics and including having their players there. Bryce Harper talked about how he wished the MLB would follow the past decisions of the NHL which led to a break in the NHL season for the Winter Olympics once every four years. Similarly, Bryce Harper wants a break in the MLB season for the Summer Olympics. This would add another tournament for national team fans to get behind, thus increasing the amount of baseball fans. Furthermore, inclusion into the Olympics leads to greater funding for national baseball federations around the world, thus increasing baseball’s popularity. But, without the MLB players, Olympic organizers are less keen on keeping baseball in the Olympics hence its limbo position where it was included in 2020, but not in 2024.
Lastly, qualifiers need to allow MLB stars on them, and more nations need to be involved in qualifiers. Right now, there are twelve teams involved in qualifiers directly, and then indirectly, the continental tournaments are supposed to allow for teams to earn their way to these direct qualifiers, but it is not clear they really do. Furthermore, many of these continental tournaments and qualifiers take place during the MLB season, thus once again relegating their importance, and hurting the nations who like baseball the most and thus have MLB players, yet are not in the Top 16 to be automatically qualified for the WBC.
Of course, player safety and the interests of the owners of various teams around the world need to be included, so maybe only one of these ideas is implemented, but a calendar that includes national team baseball in November and March would be really good in growing the sport, as would be more qualifiers to allow more nations the opportunities to prove their nation on the field.
The more nations involved means the more popular the sport and the more fans of the game.
And, due to the scarcity of games for each nation over a four year cycle, it would create an atmosphere of meaningfulness or urgency, which is what Colin Cowherd stated provides for the highest ratings in baseball such as with MLB playoff baseball, the College World Series, and Little League World Series.
Therefore, an international schedule from 2023 to 2030 would be smart to look like this:
November 2023: Initial Qualifiers/Continental Championship
November 2024: Initial Qualifiers/Continental Championship and WBSC Premier12
November 2025: Final WBC Qualifiers
March 2026: WBC
November 2026: Initial Qualifiers/Continental Championship
November 2027: Initial Qualifiers/Continental Championship and WBSCPremier12
July-August 2028: Olympics
November 2028: Initial Qualifiers/Continental Championship
November 2029: Final Qualifiers for WBC
March 2030: WBC