As the weather gets warmer many eyes will turn to Florida and Arizona for the annual rite of spring, the first MLB games following pitchers and catchers reporting last week. This year will have an extra global pop for baseball, as the third World Baseball Classic, with an expanded format, will be held in Asia, Latin America and the United States. The WBC continues to grow in stature every time, and with baseball now not on the Olympic programme (although the sport is trying for reinstatement for 2020) the WBC is the premiere platform for the sport on a country by country basis.
We took a few minutes to speak with Paul Archey, Senior Vice President, International Business Operations, Major League Baseball on the latest on what fans and the sport of baseball will be in store for as The Classic gets underway in a few weeks.
What is the biggest area of growth for the WBC from a business perspective?
The World Baseball Classic is a chance for people, who may have never seen the game before, to experience the game played by some of the best players in the world. The impact the World Baseball Classic has to bring the game to people around the globe is large, more than 800,000 people attended games during the 2009 World Baseball Classic, and we hope this will foster interest and awareness for the game in the long-run.
The number of fans that the World Baseball Classic exposes to the game of baseball and the business opportunities — television, sponsorship and licensing– that can stem from the tournament can grow the popularity of the sport along with new business opportunities.
Was MLB happy with the way the preliminary rounds in the fall were received in the host countries?
The Qualifiers held in the Fall were a success. The Qualifiers were televised in 156 countries worldwide in seven different languages.
On the field, the quality of play was outstanding. For example, Brazil, a country known for its soccer prowess, completed a watershed moment in the development of baseball in the country. Team Brazil stunned Team Panama in Panama for the second time during the Qualifier with a 1-0 win to earn a spot in the 2013 World Baseball Classic in March. Thyago Vieira, a 19 year old native of Sao Paulo who is in the Seattle Mariners system, picked up his second save of the tournament in a high pressure ninth-inning that involved facing established Major Leaguer players Carlos Ruiz, Carlos Lee and Ruben Rivera — Panama’s Nos. 3, 4 and 5 hitters. Team Brazil, led by Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, went 3-0 in the Qualifiers giving up just four runs in 27 innings.
MLB announced their mega T-Mobile deal a few weeks ago, will we see any tech innovations during the WBC?
T-Mobile is a MLB sponsor but they are not a sponsor of the tournament. However, the technology will be used for the first time during the event.
In addition, there will be noticeable audio and video enhancements compared to previous tournaments by our partner MLB Network.
Team USA has never made it to the finals…how important is American success to the future of the tournament?
When national pride is on the line, of course there is the desire for your home team to finish as the champion. I know Joe Torre, the manager of Team USA, has spent a lot of time putting together a strong team and feels good going into the tournament. Clearly Team USA advancing through the tournament will generate more buzz and excitement for fans here in the United States. That being said, Major League Baseball is a global sport with nearly 30% of MLB players born outside the United States. In addition, this tournament gives some of the best young players in the world, like Yu Darvish and Daisuke Matsuzaka, exposure in the United States before they even play for a MLB Club.
The World Baseball Classic demonstrates the strength of the game around the world and the many nations that have put together talented teams. Moving forward, we plan to continue showcasing the most talented players from around the world to fans that are also from around the world. By continuing to build on the successes of the previous tournaments, we will be able to continue to grow the game around the globe.
Baseball remains the largest global sport not on the Olympic program. Is MLB at all looking to leverage the WBC in the re-instatement process for 2020?
Of course we support the International Baseball Federation’s effort to get baseball back into the Olympics. By being included in a global event like the Olympics, it raises the profile of the game around the world and introduces it to more people.
The WBC has been used to test some rules innovations in previous years? Anything new this time around?
The format of the competition will be a combination of ones used in previous years. The First Round will return to a round-robin format, which was used in the 2006 tournament, with the top two teams at each venue advancing to one of two Second Round pools. The Second Round will be a modified double-elimination format, which was used in the 2009 tournament. We like the “win or go home” format used for the later rounds, but setting the schedule for the First Round allows for each team to play in a minimum of three games, and provides both fans and broadcasters with final game times and match-ups in advance.
The pitch count for each round of the tournament was changed back to what was used in the 2006 tournament. A pitcher must throw no more than:
– 65 pitches per game in the First Round;
– 80 pitches per game in the Second Round;
– 95 pitches per game in the Championship Round.
In the 2009 event, pitch counts were 70/85/100.
In addition, from the 13th inning on, teams at bat will begin the inning with runners on first and second base. The runner on first base will be the batter immediately preceding the lineup’s regularly scheduled batter. The runner on second base will be the batter immediately preceding the runner on first base in the lineup. This is not a new rule for the 2013 tournament, but it is a situation that has not occurred in either of the previous tournaments.
There are several new sites this year. How were they chosen and why?
Developing the game of baseball internationally has always been the goal of the tournament. Between the Qualifiers and the 2013 tournament, Germany, Panama and Taiwan were all first-time hosts. Fans in these countries were exposed to high quality baseball which helps to drive interest and awareness of the game. The grassroots work will eventually lead to a greater pool of players which will increase the possibility of a player from the country playing at the professional level. When that happens, interest in the MLB brand grows and new business opportunities are created.
San Francisco will host the Championship Round for the first time. The organization was serious about their approach and made a strong bid. San Francisco is an international city with an large, avid fan base making it a great fit to host the Championship – not to mention that they are the reigning World Series Champions.
This will be the first WBC where social media is really a powerful force. Any thoughts on live tweeting from the dugouts or other ways to better engage the fans?
First and foremost, the World Baseball Classic is the premier international baseball tournament with national pride on the tournament. Because the competition is taken seriously, we are very careful about introducing any additional element that could be a distraction to the players during the game.
That being said, social media is a way to connect the global baseball community. It really is a testament to how quickly social media has grown that it was barely a factor in the last World Baseball Classic in 2009. It will definitely play a huge role this time around, not just for raising awareness and building buzz for the tournament, but also from the standpoint of learning about different cultures. During the Qualifiers last fall, it was really fun to see players tweeting from Israel and Spain, Panama and Brazil, and all the other countries. Players were using social media to announce their selection to their team and express their excitement to represent their nation. Fans around the world form communities online, places where they can gather to root for their team and share their national pride. When we post a question on the official Facebook page as simple as “who will win?” the response we get from all corners of the world is remarkable.
A global event such as this also presents unique challenges when it comes to social media. Not only are there language barriers and cultural differences, but there are many different social media networks around the world. Facebook and Twitter are extremely popular in many countries, but in many of the countries involved in the World Baseball Classic, there are different networks used by a majority of the fans. So we often have to lean on baseball as the universal language to reach everyone, and count on the national federations and the players themselves to spread the word about the tournament.
That said, fans can get all sorts of behind the scenes photos and access – and win prizes – through our official accounts on Twitter (@WBCBaseball) and Facebook.
In addition, the MLB Fan Cave will play a role in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Sixteen fans, one representing each of the participating World Baseball Classic countries/territories, will cheer on their nation during the tournament from New York City as part of the “MLB Fan Cave: World Baseball Classic Edition.” They will also share their national pride, meet baseball personalities and chronicle their experiences online through videos, blogs and social media. As the teams are eliminated from the tournament, the fan representing that country/territory will leave the MLB Fan Cave. The fans of the final four teams will travel to the Championship Round in San Francisco, CA to watch their National Team compete for the World Baseball Classic Championship.
MLB Network has become a destination year-round for the sport. Is there any worry about the whole tournament being on and other networks in the US limiting coverage because of it?
MLB Network is an appropriate home for the exclusive U.S. English-language telecast of the World Baseball Classic. The network is in its fifth year on the air and in that time it has gained credibility for its production quality while growing distribution. In 2012, MLB Network aired two League Division Series games during the Postseason which were the two most-viewed telecasts in the network’s history. Since its record-setting launch in 50 million homes, MLB Network is now available in 70 million cable and satellite homes and is carried by the top ten distributors in the U.S.
ESPN Deportes is the exclusive Spanish-language broadcast partner in the United States and their coverage will be on par with what the network would provide for any major event.