Tonight, the United States will take on the Dominican Republic in a World Baseball Classic game that is win-or-go-home for both teams. Win, and the United States will move on to the championship round with the Netherlands, Japan, and Puerto Rico. Lose, and the stars and stripes will not be present in the tournament’s final round for the third time out of its four occurrences (the only time the Americans did make the cut, they lost in the semis).
If you had told a MLB executive about the current situation a few months ago–one game that the U.S. has to win to make the final round– they would probably say that if the U.S. lost, it would likely mean game over for the World Baseball Classic (which occurs every four years in March), a move that Major League Baseball was apparently already considering before the next tournament, in March 2021.
That logic makes sense. Previously, the success of the tournament has been largely bound to the United States’ success; much of the success of the tournament, at least fiscally, comes from U.S. viewership, which had been previously mediocre at best. A U.S. trip to the championship round has the potential to attract a boatload of viewers, but a championship round without the U.S. could very well be considered dead upon arrival in the States.
Game attendance was also lackluster previously; not only were very few people watching the games on TV, but very few people were actually going to the games.
This time around, things have been different.
Not only has there been a marked upwards tick in viewership (18% more people have watched this year’s classic compared to 2013’s, per MLB Network), but 34% more fans attended this year’s first round versus the first round in 2013.
So that do-or-die mentality of tonight’s U.S.-D.R. matchup can be eased back a little. But only a little.
The WBC is still very much in jeopardy. The Olympic Committee recently decided to add baseball back to the 2020 Olympics, an event that very well has the potential to attract stars like Bryce Harper and others in a way the World Baseball Classic simply hasn’t, which could make the March tournament potentially irrelevant.
That starpower (or lack thereof) is another reason why the U.S. has struggled in the World Baseball Classic, and why the tournament had struggled to catch on all that much with U.S. viewership in previous years.
Although this year’s squad is among the more talented we’ve seen the U.S. put up, featuring names like Adam Jones, Paul Goldschmidt and Jonathan Lucroy, it’s nowhere near what a squad made up of the best the country has to offer would look like. Does America’s best outfield really feature Christian Yelich? With all due respect to the young Miami Marlin, there’s no chance in hell that Yelich would be part of a U.S. roster that featured the very best of the nation (being the very best in your country, unsurprisingly, is the typical qualification for other nations’ rosters).
Bryce Harper and Mike Trout? Nowhere to be seen. Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, and Madison Bumgarner? Mark them absent, thank you. In fact, only once in the history of the tournament has the previous year’s Cy Young winner been on the U.S. roster (R.A. Dickey, 2012, although it is worth mentioning that Max Scherzer, two-time Cy Young winner in 2013 and 2016, planned to pitch for the Americans before injury prevented him from doing so).
If you want an example of global domination personified by a major sports tournament, look no further than the World Cup. In nearly every country worldwide, it is the number-one most watched thing on television. The World Cup isn’t extremely popular in the United States, but it doesn’t have to be. The rest of the world watches every game, and the sport’s largest audience is not (and likely never will be) in the U.S.
The WBC does not have that luxury. The U.S., for the foreseeable future, is the sport’s stronghold. (A reliable, albeit very old Gallup poll from 2006 notes that around one in two Americans are baseball fans. A 2013 poll found that 48% of Americans over 18 attended, watched, or listened to a MLB game between 2011 and 2012.) If the Americans make the championship round, or even win the tournament, the WBC and Major League Baseball can essentially guarantee that the uptick in ratings will continue through the final round, and more Americans will be excited about the tournament if/when it comes around again next March.
The U.S. doesn’t necessarily have to win the tournament, or even tonight, for the tournament to be a success–at this point, it could already be considered a minor success–but it sure would help if they did, at least from a financial point of view.
This leaves fans in an awkward position. From a completely objective point of view, we shouldn’t be rooting for the country that doesn’t put their best foot forward (in terms of not putting all of their elite players on their baseball roster as well as in… uh… other areas). However, as fans of the tournament and high-quality international play that doesn’t interrupt Major League play, it’s stars-and-stripes all the way.
Where does that leave us? It’s possible that there’s a third, ideal (if not unlikely option): if teams decide in summer 2020 that they don’t actually want their stars leaving their clubs at the beginning of the pennant race, and the U.S. actually gets the job done by winning it all this March, the Bryce Harpers and Clayton Kershaws of the world come to play in March 2021.