SBJ/March 6 - 12, 2006/This Weeks News

Winning dollars, if not hearts

Major League Baseball executives have long spoken of their “greatest blessing and greatest curse,” a level of public expectation they believe places the sport under much greater scrutiny than other pro leagues.

Japanese fans hold tickets for an exhibition
game involving the Japanese team. Tickets have sold
well at nearly every World Baseball Classic venue.
They were never referring specifically to the World Baseball Classic, but they may as well have been.

With early-round play beginning this week in Orlando, Fla., Puerto Rico, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Phoenix, the fan and industry buzz surrounding the World Baseball Classic, and the economic metrics of the tournament, are in two very different places. And whether the two forces ever move into alignment will speak volumes on whether baseball’s attempt to spur global interest will succeed.

On paper, the WBC is already an out-of-the-box smash. Ticket sales have exceeded 800,000, with only the three games at Phoenix’s Chase Field showing any signs of soft sales. Nine games have sold out, with at least that many more sellouts expected, and a robust secondary ticket market has developed for the final and semifinals in San Diego and early-round play in Orlando.

Nearly all of MLB’s corporate sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi and MasterCard, are making WBC investments. ESPN is airing all 39 games on at least one of its networks. TV coverage will reach more than 200 countries. WBC merchandise is becoming a hot commodity, with particularly strong buy-in among several Northeast retailers. And MLB and the players’ union are already projecting profits above the event’s $45 million operational budget, a sum of money that will be split after each country and its baseball federations receive their shares.

But what have been the early watercooler stories about the WBC? The long and still-growing list of star players not playing due to injury, fear of injury or indifference. The heated objections of New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. The federal government’s initial rejection of Cuba’s application to play in the tournament, and later reversal after MLB pledged that Cuba will donate its share of WBC proceeds to charity. The modified rules and pitch-count limits that traditionally have been the domain of exhibition and charity games.

Inside MLB headquarters, plenty more fires have needed extinguishing. During a recent interview, the cell phones, landlines and e-mails of Paul Archey, MLB senior vice president of international business operations and the point man for the WBC, were buzzing at a near-constant rate. But amid the din, Archey insisted the WBC is more than worth the considerable trouble needed to stage it.

Pulling the event together wasn’t easy; baseball
hotbed and host site Japan nearly stayed out.
“Conceptually, everyone thinks this is the right thing to do,” he said. “The time has absolutely come for an event like this. When you get down to the details, it’s been a bit of a different story, but I really couldn’t be more pleased. The support around the world for this has been overwhelming.”

Staging a global baseball tournament has been a goal of MLB executives for years, and could ultimately prove to be a precursor of international expansion. Team owners approved the creation of the tournament in August 2004 by a 29-0-1 vote, with the Yankees the notable abstention. Then there was a brief but aborted attempt to stage the initial Classic in 2005 and get away from the Winter Olympics and World Cup. But MLB quickly learned there was not nearly enough time to lock down the formal cooperation of the baseball organizing bodies from the 16 competing nations.

Even after the decision to begin the tournament in 2006, getting that cooperation was far from simple. Japan, in particular, nearly stayed away, which, given its status as a first-round host and baseball hotbed, would have been a crushing blow.

Now that the Classic is under way, a fundamental quandary still looms: Is this the right time of year to hold the tournament? Nearly all the rules modifications, including a 14-inning limit on early round games, are in some way a function of MLB players not being in midseason shape.

The timing question was the toughest to answer for Archey and Gene Orza, chief operating officer for the MLB Players Association, which is a partner in the event. At once, Archey and Orza needed to strike a delicate balance between the playing schedules of the other professional leagues around the globe, domestic TV interests, international TV interests, corporate sponsor demands and many other logistical concerns.

“Any time you do this is going to have some pitfalls, but this is the optimal time,” Orza said. “My experience having now lived through this is that people who are suggesting other times to do this are doing so with minimal research.”

The fan and industry buzz surrounding the World
Baseball Classic, and the economic metrics of the
tournament, are in two very different places.
Others, however, aren’t so sure. Bernie Williams, playing on the Puerto Rican team, publicly acknowledged last week that he’s not physically ready for the tournament. Plenty of other players, including the New York Mets’ Billy Wagner, cited the same concerns as their reason not to play.

And Scott Boras, agent to several key players in the tournament, including Alex Rodriguez and Johnny Damon, said interest would be heightened by a move toward hockey’s model, in which the NHL suspends its season every four years to encourage player participation in the Winter Olympics.

“In effect, the sport has created its own baseball Olympics, a really excellent platform to grow the game,” Boras said. “So why not do this midseason when you have better game conditions [and] players prepared to compete at the absolute highest possible level?”

November was also strongly considered, but Archey said the crowded domestic sports calendar, led by the NFL, provides a significant obstacle. It’s a somewhat odd stance considering that the international interest generated by the WBC is ultimately far more important than what happens in America. But Archey said minimizing any potential conflicts was critical.

“There’s just a glut of sports in November,” he said, citing pro and college football, the end of the NASCAR season and the start of the NBA season. “It simply wouldn’t have worked from a baseball standpoint.”

The question of domestic viewership, however, is decidedly unsettled. ESPN officials remain tight-lipped about their ratings expectations. But given that just 20 of 39 WBC games will start in U.S. East Coast prime-time windows and just 16 games will reach the primary ESPN or ESPN2 channels, ESPN’s typical cable ratings of 1s and low 2s for its “Sunday Night Baseball” telecasts may prove a somewhat reliable, if ambitious, barometer.

“This is a new thing we’re all trying to figure out, but we’re very hopeful on the WBC,” said John Skipper, ESPN executive vice president of content. “We think this is a big deal, and are treating it as such.”

ESPN has launched an aggressive multimedia campaign to hype the tournament, will devote daily coverage to it on “Baseball Tonight,” and has assigned its top baseball commentators, Jon Miller and Joe Morgan, to call the semifinals and final in San Diego.

In the days leading up to the start of the WBC, a reinvigorated Steinbrenner repeatedly complained to reporters at the Yankees’ spring training complex of the event’s failings, even telling USA Today that the tournament is “bullshit,” and that players will not be insured.

Archey, while declining to respond directly to Steinbrenner’s sentiments, said the insurance comment could not be more false. Rather, MLB and the union have purchased insurance policies on each WBC player’s contract that supplements existing coverage obtained by MLB teams, making insurance the event’s single biggest line-item expense, Archey said.

Orza and Archey have also spent the last several weeks defending against attacks that the WBC is simply a money grab at the expense of genuine competition. While profits are expected from the event, each country’s share of those profits must be funneled into baseball development efforts.

That collective mission between baseball and its longtime nemesis, the players union, may actually turn out to be the biggest net return from the WBC. While this year’s labor negotiations are not expected to be nearly as fractious as prior rounds, the depth of cooperation between MLB and the union has already been noticed in many corners of the game.

“So far, so good,” Archey said. “We have the same objective here, and nobody is taking ownership of this thing at the expense of the other. What this means after the tournament is over is not my call. But Gene has been an excellent partner, and is very interested in seeing this thing take off, just like we are.”

But the true measures of success for the WBC, which MLB and the union intend to restage in 2009 and every four years thereafter, are still not crystal clear. Some executives will closely watch ticket sales and TV ratings. Others will wait for future international sponsorships and TV deals generated as a result of the next two weeks. And plenty of fans simply want to get through the WBC without any player getting hurt.

“Right now,” Archey said, “what I want to do is make sure that this tournament operates in such a way, operationally and economically, that we can hold a second one.”

World Baseball Classic Facts

The World Baseball Classic, a 16-team tournament sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation, began last Friday and will run through March 20. The teams are divided into four pools of four teams for the first round of play. The four Round 1 pools will be played at venues in Japan, Puerto Rico, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Ariz., and Orlando. Round 2 will feature two pools of four teams each and is scheduled to be played in Puerto Rico and Anaheim. The semifinals and final will be played at Petco Park in San Diego, March 18 and 20.

View the chart.

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