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What on Earth is Happening to the World Baseball Classic?

World Classic Baseball Logo
Just when you think you’re getting good at something, the universe has to come along and take it away!

In spite of an abiding love of all international sports, I couldn’t really get a handle on the World Baseball Classic in 2013. I knew that Nippon Professional Baseball was a time-honored institution full of wonderful hardball athletes who, for whatever reason, were never invited or never chose to come to America and play Major League Baseball.

(I also figured everyone on the diamond would look ice-cold and sloppy so early in the year – quite the opposite happened.)

It’s a bad idea to handicap world sporting events based on the number of “elite” professionals on each team anyway, especially when nobody can agree on an exact stepladder or “power chart” of MLB > NPB > Triple-A and so on in baseball, or NHL > KHL > AHL > SHL in ice hockey.

I’ve seen a few “Japan to MLB stat converters” and similar software on the internet, but they’re flawed because it’s based on someone’s conception of how to utilize the stats we have already, i.e. a subjective approach to a math problem.

Handicappers of the World Baseball Classic seem to agree. There’s a refreshing lack of “counting North American pros on fingers and toes” in blogs about the WBC, an event at which pundits appear to – imagine! – judge each athlete of every nation by their skills and merits.

But when the United States failed to even reach the Championship Round despite a roster that included Gio González, Adam Jones and Giancarlo Stanton, it had to have been a culture-shock for fans of Major League Baseball.

When a domestic league’s brand on the diamond is really tops in the world, the national team is expected to do well in world competition.

In 2017, I was ready, and so was Team USA. My underdog-hunch pick on the United States to win gold at the WBC was one of my favorite futures betting calls of that calendar year.

Qualifying for 2021’s event was said to be in planning stages at the time. Surely we could all anticipate the Stars & Stripes defending its crown in the country’s national pastime.

I figured I’d wait a couple of years and then look up the WBC and see how things were going.

But unless I’m missing something…maybe it isn’t?

World Baseball Classic: Mysterious or Maybe Just Lazy

First, a look back to ’17. I’ve got a pet theory that Americans are just never excited about a sporting event until they’ve watched their town, city, state, college or country win something in it. If the United States Men’s National Team could ever sniff the success of their Women’s World Cup counterparts, soccer (or at least soccer fandom) in the USA would be boosted.

That theory was put to the test as the Yanks (not the Yankees) won the World Baseball Classic as near 5-to-1 underdogs. If there was an explosion of fan interest following the championship, both MLB and the World Baseball Softball Confederation (which runs the WBC) haven’t seemed to notice.

The website WorldBaseballClassic.com simply recaps the 2017 event and offers no new information, while there appear to be 0 – as in zero – stories anywhere on Google or on MLB blogs that have much-if-anything to say about plans for 2021 as of more than 2 years after the last final.

Did the news of USA’s triumph go over like a limp balloon? If so, it wasn’t for a lack of excitement. A power-packed batting lineup smashed opposing hurlers from Venezuela and Puerto Rico in a tournament otherwise filled with tight games and excellent defense. What’s more, a pitching staff that some had doubted heading into the ’17 WBC was tough-as-nails in the single-elimination setting.

I do not want to assume that the World Baseball Classic could be scrapped just as the United States gets good at it and just when the TV ratings are starting to perk up. My experience covering amateur and local sports tells me that just because a website looks abandoned doesn’t mean that the entire federation has been shut down, and just because there is no public information doesn’t mean that venue bids and a tentative schedule for the next WBC isn’t in the works already.

But where there’s only an enigma, there’s only speculation. I worry that the colorful event could go the way of the World Cup of Hockey…quietly phased-out as the dominant pro organization (in this case the MLB) sees more bad than good in its planning, profitability, and execution.

How to Put on a World Sporting Event (and How Not to)

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently tried to create an exhibition hockey tournament that would emulate the great Canada vs Russia vs USA battles from the Winter Olympics, Canada Cup, and other storied events, but on American terms for domestic business interests.

The result was nobody’s favorite event. The key word was “exhibition,” and Bettman was also in a bind since the Canada Cup format would be dangerous to NHL star-studded favorites in modern times. The Ice Hockey World Championships are famously not always “best on best,” but the spring IIHF competition at least tests the depth of every nation’s talent pool. At a “best on best” tourney featuring the top 20 skaters from every single country, even a nation like Denmark (or especially Denmark, with Frederik Andersen in goal and 3 lines of NHL forwards) could jump up and upset the Yanks.

That just wouldn’t do, so Bettman’s henchmen created stupid brands like “Team North America” instead, squeezing more young NHLers into the event at the expense of European nations.  The World Cup of Hockey turned into nothing more than a preseason tour of high-priced snipers and goalies.

Ultimately the NHL is uncomfortable with sending 5 and 10-million dollar commodities overseas to play a contact sport. Baseball is not usually a contact sport, and while ballplayers can still get injured while playing outside of MLB, Major League GMs seem a lot more hospitable to the World Baseball Softball Confederation than hockey GMs are to the IIHF and the IOC.

Not every MLB All-Star is fit and raring’ to go for a late-winter/early spring event like the WBC, but enough highly-touted sluggers took part in 2017 to conclude that the World Baseball Classic could enjoy a steadier stream of participating talent from the Major Leagues than either the hockey Worlds or even the FIBA World Cup, which waited 5 years, not 4, to play hoops again in 2019.

There won’t be a World Cup of Hockey any time soon. The NHL was rather quiet about announcing that – which makes me even more anxious about the fate of the World Baseball Classic.

Ideas for the World Baseball Classic – How Gambling Could Help

The WBC may not be on life-support, but it’s sure not a steam engine roaring toward 2021.

If the fan response and profit to-date just isn’t what organizers and sponsors have been hoping for, then there are a few things the hardball tourney could try to turn things around.

It’s great to move the venues all over the world and allow different countries to host the Group Stage. However, what if the entire tournament were held in a single baseball-crazy metroplex and surrounding smaller cities, as the FIFA World Cup often is designed for soccer fans?

FIFA can be criticized for corruption at the highest levels of the organization, but there is no denying that soccer is the ideal international sport at this point. European football doesn’t need the International Olympic Committee or another ruling body to abide its prestige – it is the prestige. All FIFA must do is open the doors and welcome its superstars to the ultimate showdown once every 4 years.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a page from The Beautiful Game.

Finally, what’s great about gamblers is that they’re not prejudiced against world sports, and not enslaved by the branding of professional sports. Don’t try to tell a WBC speculator with dough on the line that only the Yankees, Red Sox and Pirates are worth caring about.

If MLB officials ever yanked the crowbar out of their collective you-know-wheres when it comes to safe, responsible, online gambling, an event like the World Baseball Classic could provide hungry bettors an early chance to handicap and wager on hardball every so often – one that doesn’t involve predicting meaningless Grapefruit and Cactus League contests.

Las Vegas would even make a great setting for the WBC. After all, for baseball gamblers it’s mostly about the action.

When it comes to big-time betting action in February and March, it’s no matter whether you’re partial to the brands of Major League Baseball or not. Events like the WBC are the only girl in town.