When it comes to the World Baseball Classic, I sometimes think of Michael J. Fox's climatic monologue from The American President.
"They're so thirsty for it, they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage," Fox says, "and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand."
Fox's character, Lewis Rothschild, was referring to the nation's need for leadership. But I think the phrase applies to baseball fans and the appetite for their favorite sport after going without it through November, December and January.
Some fans will watch the WBC when the games begin on March 2. There may be legitimate interest in watching different countries play each other in what could be thought of as the Olympics of baseball. But most people will just want to see competitive baseball for the first time in four months.
That's surely not what the organizers of the WBC and MLB had in mind when they created this event.
The WBC is supposed to be a showcase for baseball and its wide international diversity. Presumably, it would increase the global profile of the sport, capitalizing on the interest in Latin American and Asian countries.
While other countries may indeed be intrigued by the WBC, the lack of interest in the United States among all but hardcore—and starving—baseball fans has to be a concern. But MLB and the WBC can change that. Here are a few suggestions as to how that can be accomplished.
Move It to December
Perhaps the biggest problem with the WBC is when it's played.
Holding the event in March puts WBC games in direct competition with college basketball as it nears the NCAA Tournament. The NBA and NHL are also gearing up for the playoffs, the climactic time of year for those sports.
Also, the WBC takes place during spring training, when most games are exhibitions. When flipping channels, what's really the difference between a Grapefruit or Cactus League game and a match between Italy and Mexico?
The competition for sports fans' eyes would seem to be more fierce in December with the NFL building toward its playoffs. College basketball, the NBA and NHL are also playing regular season games. College football bowl games are also on the sports calendar, further dividing the attention and allegiances of fans.
But sports fans generally don't pay as much attention to college hoops, the NBA and NHL until after the New Year. Bowl games have been emasculated by the BCS putting all the importance on the national championship.
December is close enough to the end of the World Series where baseball fans have had a break and their hunger is beginning to build. It's the time of year when we really start to miss the sport. Rumors and reports of free-agent signings and trades feed the appetite for baseball, but not like actual games.
Many MLB players are already playing winter ball in Latin American and Caribbean countries. Why not play WBC games at those venues instead, so fans can still see their favorite players and athletes represent their countries in front of home crowds?
The WBC wouldn't interfere with the rest of the offseason MLB schedule either. Baseball could still hold its winter meetings. The players aren't there anyway. General managers and agents wouldn't need to attend WBC games because of the business at hand.
This way, baseball fans could get the double pleasure of hot stove rumors and news along with competitive games being played.
Make Network Partners Show Games
All WBC games will be broadcast on MLB Network. Maybe that's the right place for it, with the audience specifically targeted for baseball.
At that point of the year, MLB Network is eager for programming that doesn't involve eight consecutive episodes of Prime 9 anyway.
But this is preaching to the converted. Baseball fans are going to tune in for the WBC. They'll seek it out on their cable systems.
For the WBC to be a success, it has to reach outside the baseball bubble. The event has to attract the casual sports fan.
That means catching them while they're flipping through channels, looking for something to watch. Or, it means being on the network they're most likely to settle on when searching for sports.
Last year, MLB signed eight-year deals with ESPN, Fox and TBS. Those broadcast agreements could have included some WBC games. If the NBA can make ESPN show WNBA games, why can't MLB exert some influence on behalf of its sport as well?
It's not like having WBC games on different channels would make them harder to find. MLB has postseason games on three different networks. And unlike MLB Network, ESPN, Fox and TBS are on every cable system.
Baseball shouldn't just put the WBC on the air and expect fans to find it. The event has to be brought to the fans. Put it on the networks they're more likely to watch.
Promote During the Season
Why should baseball fans only hear about the WBC a couple of months before it's played?
MLB has the entire regular season and postseason to promote the event to fans, millions of whom are already at the ballpark or tuned into game broadcasts. Take advantage of that captive audience.
Show some highlights of past WBC games. Interview players about what it would mean to play for their respective countries and show their remarks between innings or during pitching changes.
Let Miguel Cabrera talk about representing Venezuela in the WBC and show his comments on the scoreboard at Comerica Park or during Detroit Tigers broadcasts.
What better way to generate discussion among fans than revealing that a particular player might suit up for a country like Germany, for example, because his second cousin's mother is part-German, thus qualifying him under WBC rules.
Did you know so-and-so was from New Zealand? Why is he playing for New Zealand? Doesn't he want to play for the United States? Well, maybe I'll watch New Zealand then.
Oh, the possibilities for conversation are endless. Well, not really. But there would be conversation, which is exactly what the WBC needs.
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