Worldwide sporting events such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup consistently draw massive crowds and high television ratings. Nations fight tooth and nail to host these events and exhaust significant resources preparing their country’s representatives. These spectacles of sport are exceptional publicity tools for the nations involved and for the sports being contested.
Major League Baseball Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig and his fellow executives had this in mind when they created the World Baseball Classic, seeking to grow baseball and reach more fans around the globe. But the event — set to begin March 6th — does not come close to the popularity and grandeur of the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup. The WBC will never gain substantial popularity and does more harm than good for the MLB.
There are several reasons why the WBC will never be as popular as the Olympics or FIFA World Cup. For one, baseball’s popularity in the United States is rooted in tradition. America’s best baseball towns — New York, Chicago and Boston, to name a few — have all had teams for decades. The sport is etched into the fabric of some American cities’ character and history. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field are treated as holy relics in Boston and Chicago, just like Yankee Stadium before it was knocked down.
Most of the nations participating in the World Baseball Classic, however, have virtually no connection to baseball. Nations like Italy, China, Australia, Israel and Colombia should grow their programs before they are able to compete in the World Baseball Classic.
Not only does it lack tradition, but the timing of the WBC in the midst of spring training causes many WBC teams to lack substantial talent on their rosters. In some WBC matchups, it’s possible that there are no recognizable names on either team. This year, for instance, Taiwan has zero players that are currently on an MLB 40-man roster. This has led to lopsided matchups and a few teams dominating the Classic year after year.
Residency requirements are also more relaxed than they are in, say, the Olympics. This means that players can play for countries they have very little connection to. Brandon Nimmo, outfielder for the New York Mets, will play for Italy this spring. Nimmo grew up in Cheyenne, WY and has never lived in Italy. His only connection to Italy comes from his Italian maternal grandmother. Nonetheless, WBC regulations consider Nimmo elgible to play.
Furthermore, the WBC hurts the very organization that founded the event — Major League Baseball. For one, it creates a significant injury risk for MLB players. Instead of playing their relaxed spring training schedule, they are thrust into high-pressure games only a few weeks into the preseason.
The wear and tear of the WBC also negatively impacts the performance of pitchers during the MLB season, according to a study conducted by The New York Times. Using Pecota, an analytics forecasting program developed by Nate Silver, Dan Rosenheck found that 28 starting pitchers who threw in the WBC in 2006 fell far short of their projected performance that MLB season. Overall, their value that year dropped by a third of what it was supposed to be. These conclusions were drawn from a small data set but are alarming nonetheless.
Finally, the WBC strips MLB teams of valuable time they need to coalesce and train. Spring training is vital to a team’s chemistry and preparedness. Since the number of players playing in the WBC is not equal for each team, some squads will have more players pulled away by the WBC and thus will be less prepared to play as a cohesive unit come opening day.
There are, of course, are some good qualities of the World Baseball Classic. Fans get more competitive baseball and see new rising stars. It was the 2009 World Baseball Classic that allowed fans to see the dominance of Yu Darvish. Darvish is now a starting pitcher for the Texas Rangers. The Classic has also very slowly grown the sport’s popularity across the world.
But this does not negate the fact that the Classic is nothing more than a lopsided exhibition tournament that harms Major League Baseball. The MLB should work on developing baseball in countries around the world from the ground up, not the top-down. Until teams besides Japan, the Dominican Republic, South Korea and the U.S. can consistently compete, there should be no World Baseball Classic.