A summary of 2009 international competition in this year’s Baseball America 2010 Almanac concludes with the following sour assessment of the September IBAF-sponsored Baseball World Cup: “While competition wavered from excellent to inept, the bigger story was the poor attendance…Maybe that makes it easier to see why European nations, which dominate the IOC, were quick to get baseball out of the Olympics.” The BA article bases this critical dismissal on an observation that “the overall World Cup total of 126,799 for 106 games breaks down to a 1,196 average, but taking away the German games, the average dips to 888.” To be entirely “fair and balanced” here, it should be pointed out that the BA article also admits in its much longer opening section devoted to the MLB-sponsored World Baseball Classic that a semi-final finish by Team USA in the earlier March event “failed to capture the interest of the many North American baseball fans.” The article surprisingly fails to discuss the overall poor attendance of most WBC games yet does stress the Classic-record 54,846 fans in Dodger Stadium to witness the tournament finale. The author does so, however, without mentioning that the impressive LA crowd was swelled significantly by that city’s huge Japanese and Korean ex-patriot populations and not by North American baseball partisans.
There seem to be a number of implied criticisms of the showcase IBAF world championship event inherent in the BA report, and all of them are either distortions or at best misrepresentations. It is of course ludicrous to suggest that the European-based World Cup event was any easy explanation for baseball’s recent failures within the IOC (International Olympic Committee). The Europe-based IBAF (International Baseball Federation) lobbied laboriously for the reinstatement of Olympic Baseball, as did the national federations of baseball-playing European nations like Italy, Holland, Spain and Great Britain. The truth of the matter is that the bulk of the world’s sporting nations (most located in Africa and Asia and not in Europe) have no stake or interest in the sport of baseball, which they themselves do not celebrate or even understand. The killing of Olympic baseball was hardly some European plot as seems to be implied by the Baseball America editorial.
Leaving the whole Olympic issue aside, BA seems here to falsely apprehend the nature as well as the successes of the IBAF World Cup, which remains (despite the recent intrusion of the WBC) the sport’s most legitimate world championship event. MLB’s “Classic” was from the first designed as a commercial venture–a staged exhibition supposedly showcasing “the world’s most accomplished players in the uniforms of their home nations” and designed to sell tickets and garner television and advertising revenues. Nothing wrong with that, but let’s not intentionally confuse apples with oranges or softballs with volleyballs. Since the WBC showcases MLB stars, it features ball clubs representing only that small group of approximately a dozen nations where the sport is already long established as a top-drawing professional (and thus revenue-producing) sport. The WBC does nothing to spread the growth of the bat and ball game to the numerous nations which have only recently adopted the game and where the local IBAF federations are trying against large odds to grow public interest in the sport. These would be European nations like, say, Croatia and Sweden, or Asian nations like Thailand or the Philippines. As a commercial venture the WBC can be fairly measured by the number of tickets sold. And so far, on that count alone, its own two maiden outings have hardly been much more than very tentative successes.
The IBAF World Cup (called the Amateur World Series from its origins in the late 1930s until 1988) has always had a very different mission. Its purpose is to provide a legitimate world championship venue open to all active ball-playing nations and not just those boasting MLB stars (or in Cuba’s case, the equivalent of MLB stars). An auxiliary goal is to spread and encourage the international growth of baseball as a recreational competition to be enjoyed at many levels, and thus as something far more valued than simply a revenue-producing exhibition showcasing top professional performers. Because of its nature the IBAF event indeed does produce many imbalanced matches (games between Cuba and South Africa, or between Japan and Croatia) that might be quickly labeled from the MLB perspective (or that of the writers at Baseball America) as being “inept competitions.” It also produces small crowds in sometimes less than state-of-the-art ballparks to witness games sometimes played in dreadful weather conditions (such as some of this year’s World Cup games staged in late-season soggy conditions on Dutch and Italian fields featuring poor drainage and little grandstand fan protection).
But for all those drawbacks, first-round World Cup matches attracting twenty nations this past September to such locations as Zagreb (Croatia), Regensburg (Germany), Sundbyberg (Sweden), Barcelona (Spain) and Prague (Czech Republic) did far more to spread the growth and popularity of the sport (and thus to increase its Olympic appeal) than might any televised showcase MLB matches beamed into those locales from distant San Diego or San Juan. IBAF events give emerging baseball nations a chance to compete on an equal basis. They bring high-level exhibitions of the sport to fans that are often experiencing it for the first time. They do not boast the MLB goal of creating larger TV markets for American and National League teams or selling larger amounts of high-priced Yankees caps or Red Sox jerseys. IBAF events are the grass roots of the game and not the polished marketing arms of the sport’s lofty professional levels. And more power to them for that.
All this said, there remains a great irony in Baseball America‘s editorial lambasting of poor September World Cup attendance. It must be remembered here that not only did IBAF officials not share the same MLB marketing aims while staging the European World Cup event, but they also did not enjoy either the same huge advertising and promotional budget to work with, or the same built-in MLB and Latin American fan base to plug into. And the format for competition also worked against drawing large crowds in Europe. Fans did not know from one round to the next which teams would be playing where. For example, Dutch fans gambling that powerhouse Cuba and defending champ Team USA might face off in an attractive second round clash in Rotterdam were disappointed (after the Americans first-round slip in Germany) to find Cuba matched instead with Venezuela in the game they had planned to attend. The venues spread out around Italy for the final round were located in off-the-beaten-path locales such as Grosseto, Nettuno and Messina (in distant Sicily) and fans following a particular ballclub faced the near impossible task of racing from one part of the country to another in less than 24 hours (often to a destination that was not finalized until the previous day’s results were in).
Despite all those obstacles to fan participation, World Cup attendance actually held up quite well when compared to this year’s MLB Classic. What was not mentioned in the BA citation of attendance figures was the matter of stadium capacity. While many games did draw less than 1,000 in-house spectators, those games where often being played in venues like Amsterdam’s 3,000-seat bandbox ballpark or Grosseto’s quaint but limited 4,000-seat facility. By contrast, several second-round MLB Classic games in Toronto and Miami witnessed turnouts where security personnel, souvenir vendors, and concourse ushers nearly outnumbered the paying customers. An Italy-Venezuela match at Rogers Centre (50,516 capacity) drew 10,450 fans (21% capacity) while the first Netherlands-Venezuela game in Miami’s Dolphins Stadium (42,531) packed in 17,345 (40% capacity). Cuba and Puerto Rico drew a mere 1600 fans to Amsterdam’s Sportpark Ookmeer, but that venue can barely hold 3000 (counting standees). Yes, admittedly the WBC drew far better and the World Cup games of September could only claim dismal attendance figures. But the contrasts are not that stark when one considers the venues, the weather and the travel conditions–especially when one is comparing baseball-hotbed Miami to soccer-mad Amsterdam. And more especially when the IBAF measures its successes by something far different from gate revenues.
No one would suggest that baseball is at the top of the list of spectator sports in Europe, but then again it doesn’t hold that rank here in the USA either (despite boasts about the reputed North American home of a game that evolved in the early 19th century from European bat and ball contests). Europe is soccer territory and North America is NFL and NASCAR territory. By no measure is the IBAF World Cup tournament the kind of thriving commercial enterprise that organized baseball (MLB) is. It doesn’t appeal to fans expected the best-known and highest salaried celebrity ballplayers, and it does not provide games either enriched or overshadowed by luxury venue full-scale entertain “spectaculars” featuring tons of electronics and the equivalent of a three-hour rock concert. World Cup baseball is barebones and often enjoyed by only a scattered handful of true aficionados in the most primitive of functional ballpark facilities. But for some of us that is precisely its priceless charm and its deeply important value. IBAF World Cup events may not yet do much to increase revenue-producing spectators. But they serve an immense value in growing the sport in some of baseball’s most distant outposts, and therein resides the largest possible contribution to the sport’s true international future.