By Peter C. Bjarkman
HAVANA TIMES, March 22 – In the aftermath of Cuba’s 5-0 Wednesday loss to Japan and the island team’s failure to return to the semifinal round of the World Baseball Classic, it is time to pause here and reflect on the numerous successes, obvious failures and largely mixed reviews of MLB’s second World Baseball Classic.
To their credit, Major League Baseball honchos have done quite a bit of effective tweaking to eliminate many of the imperfections marring the inaugural 2006 tournament. This second version has offered non-stop entertainment and high-quality baseball for those of us privileged enough to be on the scene at any of the first or second round venues.
Nonetheless, Major League Baseball’s marketing efforts aimed at the event’s prime audience have once again left much to be desired. WBC II has stirred little enthusiasms from American sports fans either preoccupied with the tip-off of college basketball’s March Madness, or obsessed with spring training progress of big league all-stars selected for their own personal summer fantasy league competitions.
What MLB has sold as an effort to “internationalize” the misnamed “American national pastime” has been a resounding success at stirring passions in Venezuela, Japan, Korea, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and even parts of Europe. At the same time it has by and large been a prime time washout back home on the domestic scene.
By almost any measure, the second edition of the World Baseball Classic has been a huge success on the playing field while an overall disappointment in the half-vacant grandstands.
That there is still shamefully little interest among North Americans in any baseball that is not exclusively “major league” by perception was emphatically underscored by the announced crowd of 13,224 that turned out in Dolphins Stadium to watch a recent vital USA-Puerto Rico match determining semifinal slots in Los Angeles.
Most of the 10,000-odd boosters (after no-shows) actually in the grandstands were clearly there to root for Puerto Rico and not the touted USA Dream Team. A similar Japan-Korea face-off in San Diego packed in a mere 15,332 (mostly Asian ex-patriots), compared with the 45,640 throng that greeted the same two clubs a week earlier at the Tokyo Dome.
Mexico City-reputedly a soccer hotbed and not a baseball town-drew far greater fan support for the host club (a near-capacity 20,000-plus at each Team Mexico contest) than the Jeter and Youkilis-led Americans were able to muster in Miami.
Positive WBC growth signs
Admittedly we have seen a few positive signs of growth in tournament interest, and the MLB publicity arm has been quick to pounce on these in their daily press notes.
There were three sellouts in the opening round (something that did not happen in 2006) even if all three were games played by Team Japan in Tokyo. Television ratings have also been up slightly over 2006, while at the same time hardly sufficient to draw headlines.
The ESPN-aired USA-Venezuela match of March 8 (Miami) posted a 2.0 rating (with 2,645,000 million viewers) which is a WBC record for American viewers (surpassing the 2006 USA-Mexico second-round game in Anaheim).
Yet compare that with the 37.8 and 28.2 ratings on Japanese television for the pair of Korea-Japan first round matches, or the 43.4 rating in Japan during the 2006 finals versus Cuba.
All the signals are that the WBC has turned on the Japanese and Cubans, above all others, while barely moving onto the North American viewer-ship radar screen.
In short, for Americans the WBC has not yet become a “prime time” feature, and the explanations for this are not hard to uncover. Despite all the clichés about “our national pastime” repeated by American historians and journalists with sickening frequency, baseball is clearly no longer either the national sport or the foremost American sporting passion.
MLB continues to tout annual increases in attendance but these are aberrations of increasing affluence and an expanded league (more teams and thus more games) that say nothing about the ingrained popularity of the native sport. NASCAR, NFL and NBA attractions (not to mention NCAA football and basketball) now dwarf MLB entertainment in the American public imagination.
Superstar Marketing Strategy
A bulk of those who do watch the MLB product from luxury boxes or sports bars are no longer traditional “baseball fans” intrigued by the game itself. They are consumers of mass-media spectacle and thus they gravitate to storylines about celebrity foibles and on-field displays of individual showmanship. (The LA Times, for example, withdrew its beat writer from the WBC first round in San Juan in the wake of an announcement that scandal-plagued Alex Rodriguez had abandoned the Dominican roster.)
Asked to watch highly competitive games not featuring the celebrity faces seen as often in commercial advertising as in the ballpark itself, fans turn away in boredom.
Market a sport via the magnetism of individual superstars rather than the intricacies and beauties of the game itself and the houses will be empty once those prime players are no longer on the stage.
The artistry and natural uniqueness of the game itself is no longer the featured entertainment. Ask a typical American fan about a tense 1-0 pitchers duel with no extra base blasts or home runs capped by exploding scoreboards and he will most often tell you that this is why baseball is so boring.
The relative lack of widespread interest for this showcase tournament can be measured with both the television ratings and the hundreds of rows of vacant seats.
Mexico City and Tokyo have been the only two venues so far to attract respectable attendance numbers for all six venue games, and this is odd in itself since the Japanese are reputed to turn out only when their native sons play, while the Mexicans are stereotyped as soccer-only supporters.
San Juan certainly was not the electrically charged venue it was the first time around when four Caribbean powerhouses slugged it out toe-to-toe. Miami is a proven baseball wasteland. And Canadians only gobbled up tickets in Toronto to watch two disappointing outings of the quickly eliminated home club.
It is easy enough to put a finger on reasons for the North American boredom with the new international tournament, beyond any mere slide in the pull of baseball itself.
Ticket prices were too high
For one thing the head honchos at MLB have marketed this tournament in all the wrong ways. Millions of dollars have been wasted on advertising tickets on-line and over the air waves, while at the same time those tickets have been priced far out of range for fans facing a tough economy.
Lower level seats at Petco Park, to cite a single case, were priced at $75, which is three times the going rate for those same seats during San Diego Padres National League games.
It would have been far better to literally give those tickets away this second time around and thus build fan interest in an event that has been slow to catch on. Once fans experience up close just how exciting these games truly are they will certainly be far more likely to come back next time around in droves.
Fans also shun the gates when they turn on their television screens and see big leaguers performing in front of empty grandstands. The common perception always is that this must indeed be a “minor league” event if it is staged before minor league turnouts.
Just as success surely feeds on itself, so does disinterest. The spectacle of hordes of no-shows in Miami’s Dolphin Stadium was a special disaster-one orchestrated by a false assumption that Team USA automatically would bring a hometown following, plus the misperception that Latino fans would flock to watch clubs other than the one sporting their own national banner.
The American team at this point clearly has no following without a full lineup of superstars. The Dutch were a true Cinderella story for the American media and European fans after their rude upsets of the favored Dominicans, but that never translated to the Florida ticket-buying population.
The Dominicans were already home of the sidelines (actually most had returned to MLB spring training camps) in full-scale embarrassment. And the Venezuelan fans turned out in small but boisterous numbers mainly to protest Magglio Ordóñez for his outspoken support of socialist president Hugo Chavez. The result inevitably has been that some great baseball has been played largely before a gapping audience vacuum.
Much has been written about this event’s early failures being due exclusively to a lack of celebrated superstars. There is little debate that the injury loss of Alex Rodríguez, the defections of the likes of Manny Ramirez and Carlos Zambrano, or the suspicious injury of Dustin Pedroia (who was badly enough handicapped to be forced off the Team USA roster, yet not lame enough to be prevented from driving in runs in Boston’s spring training games two days later) have all been blows to tournament respectability.
Constant media hype about such “defections” has been a genuine factor in driving down attendance in Toronto and Miami, if not in Mexico City or San Diego. High-profile MLB superstars seem to be the only North American yardstick for an event’s entertainment value.
But few who have come to the games seem to care that headline-hungry A-Rod or a bevy of all-star American and Dominican pitchers never showed up. Fans who swallowed the elevated ticket prices in Toronto, Miami and San Diego (or braved the hyped street violence of Mexico City) have found joy in watching thrilling competition (like nail biting comebacks by Cuba versus Australia and the Americans versus Puerto Rico), and also witnessing less-celebrated stars like Korea’s Jungkeun Bong, or Japan’s hard-throwing Yu Darvish, or Cuba’s slugging Freddie Cepeda. They have discovered that there is plenty of great baseball that is not played in the major leagues.
Rule Changes Successful
Major League Baseball (the corporation) has done almost everything right on the field this second time around to build a thrilling and meaningful international competition. The new early-round play-down system-one featuring double elimination-is a vast improvement if still not entirely perfect.
No longer are there meaningless games of the type we had in 2006. There will be no further disasters like the Netherlands-Panama truncated no-hit, no-run game-a March 2006 fiasco played to an empty house in San Juan and featuring an unmotivated Team Panama assisting a Dutch minor league hurler’s claim to fame by swinging at the first pitch delivered time after time through seven torturous sloppy innings.
Under the new format every contest features teams fighting either to stave off elimination or secure the best seeding in the upcoming round. And even the questioned final day of preliminary rounds-matching two already qualified teams playing for pool championship honors-has been loaded with competitive significance, especially in round two with semifinal pairings squarely on the line.
If all the top stars wearing MLB pinstripes are not here, at least a large number of those who desire to compete have filled their countries’ rosters. And that is a far better scenario than what we witnessed from a disinterested Team USA playing with minimal passion during the maiden MLB Classic.
MLB has nonetheless so far failed in its efforts to sell the spectacle on the home front-focusing instead on selling tickets at premium prices during the worst of economic times. The repeated excuse for half-empty ballparks and darkened TV screens three years back was that Team USA’s “Dream Team” entry was not sprinting toward the finals in San Diego.
The collective joy around MLB circles today here in Los Angeles now seems to be that the American forces-staffed by household names like Jeter, Peavy, Oswalt and Wright-will now finally take center stage.
This fortuitous turn of events still ignores the fact that, as in 2006, the majority of tickets sold here in California for the final games will be snapped up by Korean or Japanese fans (or maybe both), despite any slight upsurge in interest and hometown flag waving the Americans might bring.
This tournament has limited future prospects if the marketing strategy remains one of trumpeting patriotic USA victories to jingoistic supporters on the home front. Its promise lies instead in the discovery by North American fans of the thrills and artistry of a true international baseball festival, one featuring stars, playing styles and native fan enthusiasms drawn from outside the narrow universe of Major League Baseball.
Such a true “internationalizing” of the sport has already been discovered in hotbeds like Japan, Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and even European outposts like Holland and Italy.
Unfortunately those passionate rooters outside North American borders have had only early morning video access to all but the preliminary rounds in Tokyo, San Juan and Mexico City. A portion of Cuba’s enthusiastic audience continues to follow the final games on TV and radio even though the island’s team didn’t make it past Round Two.
But Cuba represents few if any dollars in the MLB coffers and has never therefore been a serious part of the MLB marketing scheme. The final weekend here at Dodger Stadium is sure to draw great passions across the wider baseball world.
But most of the rabid viewing population will not be in the grandstands in LA but rather crammed before television sets in Tokyo and Seoul, Caracas and Havana. This is so far both the great triumph and also the short term failure of MLB’s extravagant new experiment to promote baseball-“the Japanese and Cuban and Caribbean national pastime”-as a genuine mainstream international sport.
To read Bjarkman’s story on Cuba’s remarkable performance in its last 50 international tournaments go to: http://www.baseballdecuba.com/WBCnewsContainer.asp?id=1353