The World Baseball Classic was initially pitched as a response to keep a global event for baseball on the world stage when the Olympics kicked the sport (and softball) out of the Summer Games. Forget the fact that the best major-league players never once went to an Olympics, but the tournament still featured some of the better prospects from each nation. No one really cared. The best thing to have ever come out of baseball at the Summer Olympics is R.A. Dickey's superhero origin story.
That's not really why the WBC exists. The tournament exists to make money, promote the awareness of baseball as a global sport, and maybe -- once every four years -- remind some of the people who straggle into the regular season once basketball and hockey are over that Opening Day is soon. It's on the most noble of those points -- showcasing baseball as a "global game" -- that the decision to put every World Baseball Classic game on the MLB Network strikes me as a failure.
This is not a shot across the bow at my Secaucas, N.J. neighbors at the MLB Network. I am supremely happy that it exists. In a world where FOX helicopters in to show a game each Saturday, and ESPN seemingly only offers it key SportsCenter time when stories about LeBron brushing his teeth and the backup quarterback for the Jacksonville Jaguars have exhausted themselves, the MLB Network is the channel of authority when it comes to America's Pastime. They are not only a promotional outlet, but a decent journalistic one. The cast of insiders and analyst are impressive, and Brian Kenny is allowed to do a show like Clubhouse Confidential on actual television.
But sequestering the entire tournament to a network, as good as it may be, in just 70 million homes (four million fewer than ESPNU) just seems backwards, especially for an event that is not particularly established. Despite growth from the original 2006 tournament, the 2009 World Baseball Classic averaged 1.6 million viewers per telecast on ESPN. The most-watched game was Team USA's semi-final loss to Japan, which topped out at 2.8 million on a Sunday night. The final between Korea and Japan drew just 1.7 million. While that's in the range of what ESPN draws for Major League Baseball regular season telecasts, shouldn't this be a little more special and buzzworthy?
Not that MLB Network won't give it their typical college try. They've coaxed Bob Costas out of... whatever it is Bob Costas does when he's not on the Football Night in America show or curating his personal museum of Whitey Herzog baseball cards to call the Championship Game. Jim Kaat will call most of the first round Team USA games, as well as the semi-finals and Championship. John Smoltz will make a cameo here and there. You've probably already seen that the network has been airing a program called World Baseball Classic Today.
That's all great, but I still wonder why the tournament is unable to grow on television. Especially given that MLB has three different television partners capable of getting a piece of at least the Team USA portions of the tournament. Why couldn't a Saturday afternoon game be rationed out to FOX? Shouldn't the American team at least have a few games on the Worldwide Leader, or even TBS? It just doesn't make sense to me, given that the tournament, ratings-wise, has momentum.
Perhaps it has something to do with apathy toward baseball in the U.S. early on in this season, especially in early-to-mid March. Sure, we all love the tradition of Spring Training, but how many of us are really interested in seeing live baseball before Opening Day? Maybe it's the fact that viewers know baseball isn't at it's best in March in terms of quality play. Then there's the old idea that Americans only want to watch tournaments we can win, that until Team USA actually goes out and takes one of these things it won't be seen as worthwhile.
Whatever it is, the strategy is not without it's good points. Having a full-time network airing every game (and shoulder programming) of the World Baseball Classic isn't a bad idea. You just wonder why it had to be MLB Network. Look, 70 million homes is not a far cry from what, say NBC Sports Network is at. It's well ahead in distribution of every other league-owned sports channel. I just don't understand why, when there are three other TV partners in the mix, it was given every last morsel of baseball action in this still-fledgling tournament.
World Baseball Classic Coverage
Here's an announcer schedule for the two remaining first-round pools, the two second-round pools, and the final four for the World Baseball Classic on MLB Network.
Pool C, San Juan (Dom. Republic, Puerto Rico, Spain, Venezuela) - Gary Thorne (play-by-play) and Jose Mota (analyst)
Pool D, Phoenix (USA, Canada, Mexico, Italy) - Matt Vasgersian (play-by-play), Jim Kaat (analyst) and Sam Ryan (reporter) will call games from Chase Field in Phoenix, while Matt Yallof (play-by-play) and Jeff Nelson (analyst) will call some ancillary games from Salt River Fields in Phoenix.
Pool 1, Tokyo (Cuba, Japan, Chinese Taipei, Netherlands), Mar. 8-12 - Rich Waltz (play-by-play) and Buck Martinez
Pool 2, Miami (top two teams in Pool C & D), Mar. 12-16 - Vasgersian and Heidi Watney (reporter) will call the entire pool. Analysts will be John Smoltz (Mar. 12-13), Tom Verducci (Mar. 14 and 16) and Harold Reynolds (Mar. 15-16).
Semifinals, San Francisco, Mar. 17-18 - Vasgersian, Kaat and Verducci (reporter)
Championship, San Francisco, Mar. 19 - Bob Costas (play-by-play), Kaat and Verducci.