SBJ/March 27 - April 2, 2006/This Weeks News

Classic produces comeback victory for commissioner

Selig, who weathered criticism before the
event, basked in its success afterward.

Befitting his status as a serious history buff, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig typically has been forced to wait years for the full effects of his initiatives to be realized.

Not so for the World Baseball Classic. Even before the tournament ended last week, Selig had scored one of the most decisive wins in his 13-plus years running the sport. His success, visible on several key fronts, was foremost seen in the sweeping, 180-degree turn of media, industry and fan opinion on the nascent event, as fervent pre-event criticisms wilted amid the intensity of the games.

Additionally, naysayers of the WBC’s appeal to American TV
viewers were greeted with an average cable rating of 1.1 on ESPN (12 telecasts) and 0.6 on ESPN2 (20 telecasts), including a 1.8 for Japan’s 10-6 championship game win over Cuba. The marks are far above initial industry and internal network expectations and nearly double the networks’ typical draws for MLB spring training games.

What went right with the WBC from your perspective? What didn’t?

We got a lot of things right, and lot of things that had been contemplated went according to plan, which is very gratifying. I think we were all very pleased with the intensity of the competition and how interest in this event not only grew as we expected it would, but continued to hold up against some stiff competition in other sports. We’ll look at our event as a whole, get together and see what changes need to be made.

I’d like to see if there is a way to increase the participation. … There were a lot of countries that wanted to participate, and we need to get them involved, so some type of play-in system is something we’ll definitely consider to expand the scope of this. The tiebreakers are another thing we’ll really look at long and hard, putting something in place that’s a lot easier for the public to digest.

The timing of the event was easily the most-debated element of the entire tournament. Is your dedication to the March placement still intact?

Yes, I do think March really works best for this. We heard a lot of suggestions on timing, and we continue to hear a lot of suggestions on timing, but this is the time that works, I’m convinced. We may look at something a little later in the month of March for ’09, but November is really a tough thing to try to do. It’s problematic on so many levels.

How much did this event suffer from the U.S. team failing to advance to the semifinals?

I really don’t think it suffered at all. There is some disappointment, I guess, but judgment of this tournament should not be in terms of U.S. reaction. … It’s important, and I don’t want to diminish its importance. ESPN is very happy with how they’ve done, and so are we, but it’s foremost about growing the game globally, and we can’t lose sight of that. The Japan-Korea [semifinal] game did a 36 rating in Japan and peaked over 50. … It’s almost hard to understate how great that is for us, to get that kind of impact.

— Eric Fisher

Sellers of WBC merchandise were overwhelmed with demand, both online and at the ballparks. At San Diego’s Petco Park, site of the semifinals and final, retail per-cap spending was $10, roughly five times what’s posted for a typical Padres game at the ballpark and comparable to many World Series contests, said Alan Fey of XP Events, the exclusive merchandise concessionaire for the WBC.

Tournament profits, expected initially, will indeed be realized, with the final net figure easily extending into the high seven figures and perhaps surpassing $10 million. Half of that money will be distributed to the competing countries with a stipulation that at least 50 percent of each stipend go directly to the country’s baseball federation. MLB and its players’ union will split the other half of WBC profits.

More broadly, questions of whether a second WBC would be held in 2009, less than fully resolved as recently as a month ago, have given way to a steering committee meeting set for next month that will begin planning that next tournament.

The immediate shift in support for the WBC, way ahead of the pace of initially begrudging acceptance of other Selig moves such as wild-card playoff berths and interleague play, allowed the commissioner and his supporters a chance to get in a few choice I-told-you-sos as the event drew to its close.

“Once innovations and new ideas work, all of the early criticism goes away, and you don’t hear from those people,” Selig said. “They’ll also never acknowledge that you were right. They just don’t say anything. But I knew this would be a watershed event for our sport, and the response, the passion we’ve seen around the world, it’s been just overwhelming.”

Said San Diego Padres CEO Sandy Alderson, “Bud deserves to be able to enjoy this, the satisfaction of having this really exceed all our expectations. He put himself out there and took the heat at the front end, and it’s fair to say we’ve not typically seen the acceptance come back around so quickly. But it has, and deservedly so.”

The comments from Selig and Alderson, while not necessarily unexpected, are far from hyperbole. Nearly all the WBC games were decked with screaming fans and had an overall energy in the stands far surpassing any MLB regular-season game and most playoff contests. Close observers of the game could not miss the importance and impact of the medal ceremony for the Japanese team, either: Not only did team manager Sadaharu Oh get tossed around by his jubilant players as if he attended a rock concert, but Selig and players association chief Donald Fehr together handed out the medals and trophies without a trace of tension or awkwardness that has enveloped most of their long and often rocky relationship.

“There’s this moment from the Japan-Korea semifinal I’m never going to forget,” said Len DeLuca, ESPN senior vice president for programming and acquisitions. “We’re in the rain delay in the eighth, Japan’s up 6-0, the game’s essentially over, but nobody is leaving. The Koreans are chanting and cheering, and the Japanese fans are coming right back, doing the same thing. It was a lot like North Carolina-Duke, but this was a brand-new event. It was just remarkable. The debate that came before this thing cannot deny the fact the planets really aligned here. It was a scene unlike anything I’ve seen.”

The feel-good elements and afterglow of the WBC aside, a number of key operational improvements urgently are needed, said Paul Archey, MLB vice president of international business operations, who had a key role in developing the WBC and will again for 2009 (see box, facing page).

The tiebreaker procedures were regarded as difficult to understand and at times seemingly disincentives to compete. Attendance during early-round pool play in Japan was a major disappointment, with three games posting Montreal Expos-type draws of less than 5,200 each. As a result, initial MLB boasts of getting to 800,000 in total attendance fell short, with the final count coming in at 737,112. Frantic last-minute scheduling and delays securing Cuba’s participation gave ESPN little time to promote the event.

Fans not only filled the stands but
also overwhelmed merchandise stands with demand.
Umpiring was often shaky, and the U.S. sporting community, similar to recent disappointments in basketball, received another embarrassing comeuppance in response to an uninspired brand of play. Washington Nationals reliever Luis Ayala suffered a season-ending injury competing for Mexico, prompting a vicious response from team president Tony Tavares, who unsuccessfully lobbied to keep Ayala out of the tournament.

“There are certainly things we will do different next time. That’s sort of obvious,” said Gene Orza, MLB Players Association chief operating officer. “But there are very few institutions than can do this sort of thing: staging an international tournament of this magnitude, getting the San Diego Symphony Orchestra to play out on the field, what have you. This is a pretty big thing we have on our hands.”

Staff writer Don Muret contributed to this article.

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