Baseball No Longer the Simple Pastime of Yesteryear

The World Baseball Classic is big business -- a story some media outlets understand better than others.

The inaugural World Baseball Classic came to an exciting close Monday night before 42,000-plus fans in San Diego, as Japan finally pulled away from a persistent Cuban team with four runs in the top of the ninth to seal a 10-6 victory — and claim the sport’s first true world championship.

By most accounts the tournament was a success, especially among fans overseas — the main target of the effort, led by Major League Baseball as it seeks to extend its global reach. Baseball commissioner Bud Selig accomplished his mission of “an international tournament that would bring together the world’s best teams,” wrote New York Times columnist William C. Rhoden (subscription required), with games that were “a demonstration of outstanding competition and colorful crowds, with organized cheering and spontaneous dancing.”

“Baseball: A hit heard around the world,” declared one headline; “Japan reigns, but everyone’s a winner,” said another. So impressed was the Times Rhoden that he concluded the century-old name of our sacrosanct World Series should be discarded in deference to the WBC. “This has been a legitimate global series, and that’s Selig’s problem,” he wrote. “The tournament was immediately so successful that Major League Baseball must re-examine its place in international baseball. Specifically, it must rename its fall classic.”

American sportswriters have spilled much ink covering the Classic, from George Steinbrenner’s grumpiness toward the event to the favored U.S. team’s early demise to the impressive Cuban players playing for pride and love of the game. But amid all the pomp and sporting drama, few newspapers have given any meaningful consideration to the WBC’s finances.

Bloomberg News was one of those few, reporting that the Classic “was designed to bolster baseball’s sales outside of the United States and Canada, which account for just 5 percent of its $5 billion in annual revenue.” Bloomberg added that the Classic’s $50 million cost is being split between MLB and its players’ union, with half of the event’s profit to be given “to the baseball federations of participating countries, with the understanding that they will spend 50 percent on grassroots development.” Last weekend, meanwhile, the New York Daily News reported that in terms of “the hard numbers of viewers, tickets sold and revenues,” MLB officials “met or exceeded most of their modest expectations.” While organizers drew a total of 737,112 fans when they “had hoped to sell about 800,000 tickets,” “American television ratings were respectable, with demand exceeding what ESPN had planned,” while overseas the WBC games earned some tremendous ratings.

Today the Wall Street Journal made its own important contribution, giving a detailed explanation of the divvying of the event’s profits (expected to be $10 million to $15 million). Placing the event in the context of a larger shift among baseball’s franchise owners “from a culture of division and selfishness to one of risk-taking and even collective sacrifice,” the Journal produced the kind of solid, broader business reporting on the Classic that had been missing in recent coverage.

Yet those exceptions aside, the baseball press corps overall seems to have forgotten in this case that sport is business, especially when it concerns leagues vying to tap into promising new markets (as basketball’s NBA has done very fruitfully over the past few decades). And many other journalists who did bother to consider the financial implications of the Classic gave Selig & Co. a glowing free pass.

“Major League Baseball’s big experiment became an instant success — Monday’s game drew 42,696 and the entire tournament attendance was 737,112 — and commissioner Bud Selig has raved about the ratings,” reported the Associated Press, before moving on to other matters. For the Chicago Sun-Times, one remarkably incurious toss-off sentence was enough: “It’s true the WBC was a big moneymaker for Major League Baseball, but MLB is a business, and it does have the right to generate revenue.”

A similarly vague yet heavily positive assessment was produced by the New York Post in its story, “Baseball Bonanza.”

“Flag-waving fans of global baseball teams set off a frenzy of merchandise sales that baseball bosses say they’ve never seen before,” reported the Post, which said the “World Classic Baseball tournament” concluded “with unprecedented back orders for millions of dollars in merchandise.” “We’ve got nothing to compare this to,” said Howard Smith, the Classic’s senior vice president of licensing and the one specific person the Post relied on for its unfailing, overwrought enthusiasm. “It’s just blown away all expectations we’ve had.”

At the Cuba-Japan championship, “sources said it was almost impossible to find any jerseys, T-shirts or caps bearing the logos of the two teams,” the Post added. “For the past three days, concessions were completely sold out most of the time, and people were waiting an hour in lines,” said Smith. “Concessionaires had to call up vendors every night to fly in more merchandise.”

But it was the San Diego Union-Tribune that one-upped the Post in cheery boosterism with a special front-page story entitled “New meaning for moneyball: Major League Baseball’s globalization of game makes dollars — billions — and that makes sense.”

“Ultimately, of course, it’s about the dollar. The yen. The won. The euro. The peso. Egad, the Krugerrand,” the Union-Tribune began. “To put it in monetary terms that major league baseball players and ownership alike can certainly understand, the globalization of the game is the mobilization of the moolah: Marketability. Merchandising. Licensing. Franchising?”

Forging on despite such bewildering wordplay, the paper quickly came to the climax of its “moneyball” analysis: “If the World Baseball Classic triggers the desired worldwide response, the new revenue streams can be as long as the Nile, wide as the Amazon and free-flowing as the Yangtze. They won’t be just mining for diamonds in South Africa, but carving out baseball diamonds in the open lots of Johannesburg as well. People will be wearing Indians caps in … India!!!”

That said, the Union-Tribune then embarked on a long, tangent-riddled discourse which pointed out how the NBA had made billions from its global empire, but gave not one financial detail related to baseball or how it might make that imminent international fortune.

When such a clear bonanza is in the offing, when people will be wearing Indians caps in India (!!!), who needs silly details, or editing?

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.