Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Baseball Takes a Swing at a Real World Series

It's always been something of a joke that Major League Baseball calls its championship tournament the World Series. With one exception – the Toronto Blue Jays – every franchise in the league is based in a U.S. city.

For decades, the league has actively looked for ways to increase its global fan base. But without a showcase like FIFA's World Cup of soccer or the Cricket World Cup, MLB executives sensed that the game’s international growth would be limited.

The organizers of this month's World Baseball Classic hope the 16-team tournament will attract global interest and introduce new fans and players to the game with the parochial reputation as "America's national pastime."

I spoke recently with John Genzale, co-director of Columbia University's graduate program in Sports Management and a paid consultant to the Italian national team.

"It's huge – it could be huge. It could do wonders for baseball's popularity in Italy. Especially if they win a few games," he said.

Fearing their highest-paid stars would get hurt and miss time during the regular season, MLB franchise owners resisted the idea of an international tournament. But they relented in 2005 when baseball was voted out as an Olympic sport.

Though American teams are run for profit, many countries charter and support national baseball federations with government funding. MLB has promised to distribute $15 million in proceeds from the Classic to the 127 members of the International Baseball Federation for the promotion and development of grassroots initiatives.

"European teams are more like bureaucracies than commercial enterprises," said Genzale.
"There is less a dependence on sponsorship. The main source of revenue comes from these national organizations."

From a financial point of view, the WBC already has two strikes against it. The banking crisis has hit the baseball world hard.

Bank of America and the New York Yankees recently ended a long-term sponsorship arrangement. Jeff Wilpon, the owner of the New York Mets, is said to have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Bernard Madoff's ponzi scheme. Though Citicorp's $400 million deal to purchase naming rights for the Mets' new ballpark will proceed, political pressure has forced many large firms to significantly scale back their sports marketing budgets.

"In the short term, everything is affected," said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing and public relations consultant who has worked for the New York Knicks and the U.S. Tennis Association. "Teams have to find other means to attract revenue."

Developing foreign players is one way to do it. Currently, nearly 30 different countries are represented on MLB rosters, including players from Aruba, the Netherlands, Australia, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, as well as the better-known playing fields of Central and South America.

The Pittsburgh Pirates made headlines last fall when they signed two young Indians – one a cricket bowler, the other a javelin thrower – to minor league pitching contracts. The club is undoubtedly hoping to "capture" the Indian market with this bit of stunt casting. Japanese firms pay big bucks for signage behind home plate when a superstar such as Hideki Matsui is batting for the Yankees. When Ichiro Suzuki and the Seattle Mariners come to town, teams expect a spike in attendance from local fans of Asian decent.

"What we see in baseball is an acknowledgement that with satellite TV and online video, the fan has changed," Favorito told me. "When person emigrates, they are no longer cut off from the sports culture in their home country. So signing foreign players and developing this tournament gets the brand out internationally and helps the immigrant fan to understand the sports landscape before getting here."

photo of baseball in Ghana by super.heavy

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