AT&T Park in San Francisco, home to the Giants, hosted the finals for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the last time the international competition was staged. Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP Images
AT&T Park in San Francisco, home to the Giants, hosted the finals for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the last time the international competition was staged. Photo by Jeff Chiu/AP Images

Major League Baseball’s fourth international tournament steps to the plate this month with the league on a hot streak. In the afterglow of the Chicago Cubs’ thrilling World Series victory and with MLB enjoying growing global popularity, the 2017 World Baseball Classic will begin with great anticipation on March 6.

Preliminary rounds of the event will be staged in South Korea, Japan, Mexico and the United States and will conclude March 22 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Sixteen national teams will compete for the title won by the Dominican Republic in 2013, the last time the tournament was played. And the 2017 edition of the event comes at an ideal time, as baseball will return to the Olympic program in 2020 in Tokyo and the number of international players on MLB rosters is nearing an all-time high.

According to MLB, 27.5 percent of players on 2016 Opening Day rosters were born outside the United States. The highest percentage of foreign-born players occurred in 2013, when the figure was 28.2 percent. In 2016, MLB players came from 18 countries and territories (tying the record number of countries represented on Opening Day rosters in 1998), and those from the Dominican Republic were the predominant group of internationals, followed by players from Venezuela and Cuba.

Expanding Footprint

Baseball’s rising popularity around the world also fueled record activity by national teams in 2016, said Riccardo Fraccari, president of the World Baseball Softball Confederation. “Sixty of the 70 ranked countries have moved up or down the rankings within the 12-month period,” he said. (The rankings are based on a national team’s performance in international competition.) That reflects “a very healthy movement and an unprecedented interest in baseball at the international level,” he said. The enthusiasm of fans, broadcasters, the media and players highlights an ongoing development drive and evolution within the sport, he said.

Major League Baseball recently tried to tap into the growing fervor by opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden district in September 2016, its first pop-up retail venture outside of the United States. The store sold clothing and memorabilia through the holidays and also featured a virtual reality headset that fans could use to experience the field and atmosphere of San Diego’s Petco Park, which will again host second-round games for this year’s World Baseball Classic.

“One of the benefits of the tournament we have is that, unlike a lot of global tournaments, we are able to stage events at a diverse array of communities around the world,” said Chris Park, president of the WBC and MLB’s senior vice-president of growth, strategy and international. “We have picked communities that have really passionate fan bases and also very distinctive cultures of baseball fandom, baseball stadium spectatorship and the like.”

Park also noted the revitalized interest among MLB players to participate in this year’s World Baseball Classic. When team rosters were announced in February, they included 63 MLB All-Stars. This group includes Robinson Cano and Manny Machado from the Dominican Republic, Miguel Cabrera and Felix Hernandez from Venezuela, Julio Teheran from Colombia, Justin Morneau from Canada and Adrian Gonzalez from Mexico.

New Hosts

Park said the World Baseball Classic has broadened its global footprint at the highest level of play with every edition of the tournament. “Four years ago, for instance, the Netherlands team advanced to the semifinals, which was history-making then,” he said. “Now, four years later, not only are they back in the tournament fielding a strong team, but some of the very best young stars in the game are going to be playing for them.” He also said the game has reached a high-water mark in South Korea, where the Korean Baseball Organization has been breaking attendance records and the number of Korean MLB players is growing, as well as an “uptick of interest” in Mexico and Israel.

The WBC’s first round begins with round-robin play in Tokyo, Miami, Guadalajara and Seoul, South Korea. The second round will be staged in Tokyo and San Diego and the championship round in Los Angeles. Earlier qualifying rounds were held last year in Sydney; Mexicali, Mexico; Panama City; and Brooklyn, New York. The 16-team field that remains for the main tournament comprises the four winners of the earlier qualifying rounds (Mexico, Colombia, Israel and Australia) and the 12 countries that received automatic invitations based on their performance in the 2013 WBC. Those national teams are Canada, China, Chinese Taipei, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Italy, Japan (which won the 2006 and 2009 tournaments), Korea, the Netherlands, Puerto Rico, the United States and Venezuela.

First-round Pool A play in Seoul will be held at the Gocheok Dome and feature Chinese Taipei, Israel, the Netherlands and South Korea. Pool B will play at the Tokyo Dome and feature Australia, China, Cuba and Japan. Pool C in Miami Marlins Park will showcase Canada, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and the United States. And Pool D will hold its games at Estadio de Béisbol Charros de Jalisco near Guadalajara and see Italy, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Venezuela. In the second round, the top two teams from Pool A will play the top two teams from Pool B from March 12–15 at the Tokyo Dome. The top two teams from Pool C will play their counterparts in Pool D from March 14–18 at Petco Park. Both rounds have round-robin formats. Dodger Stadium will host the semifinals and finals March 20–22.

The league determined the composition of the pools after selecting the venues. Consideration was given to competitive balance, existing rivalries and each national team’s geographic location, Park said.

The first-time use of several ballparks for this year’s tournament reflects Major League’s push to expand the game’s global reach. “There are a few things this time around that will be different,” said Park. “The main thing is that, for the first time in a while, we’re able to grow the global footprint of the tournament. We’re christening two new communities and venues into really key baseball markets”: Seoul and Guadalajara, the capital and largest city of Jalisco, Mexico. Several factors played a role in the selection of those destinations, said Park. “You have some of the conventional questions, like, which sites are we confident can put on a world-class event, both as a matter of event production and just the spectacle of activating the local community,” he said. “It also goes to trying to get a broad and accurate representation of the global community of baseball.”

Global Opportunity

The three host MLB franchises in the United States see the WBC as an all-star opportunity to showcase their stadiums and fan experiences, and few challenges are expected during this fourth go-round of the tournament. First-round play does offer some planning advantage, said David Samson, president of the Miami Marlins. The club hosted the second round during the previous two tournaments, “so we didn’t know exactly who the teams would be at Marlins Park,” he said. “This time, we know the matchups in advance. It’s been easier to market and sell because you know exactly who’s playing and when. That’s a big difference.”

Samson said that one of the preparatory priorities has been making sure visiting teams are comfortable. “You’ve got teams coming from different countries and you want to make them feel at home,” he said. To that end, the Marlins work with officials from Miami-Dade County and the city of Miami to ensure that the logistics are set for the teams and the players, he said.

The in-person experience for the World Baseball Classic is different from that of a regular Major League Baseball game, Samson said. “There’s a lot more patriotism, if you will,” he said. “It creates just a really great environment, so we try to make sure we adjust the in-game entertainment to the specific demographics playing in our ballpark.”

Dodger Stadium, which hosted the finals in 2009 (then under different ownership), has experience sponsoring a wide range of events, said Stan Kasten, the team’s president and CEO. “We just announced a big concert (Billy Joel) we’ll be having in May. We’ve had soccer games here. We’ve had hockey games here. And in the last four years this has become the most heavily attended sporting venue in the world,” he said.

The Dodgers consider its ballpark the perfect place for the championship, Kasten said. For its bid, the franchise talked up the Los Angeles market and the organizational advantages, particularly the team’s experience in marketing. In addition to the highest home attendance in baseball, the Dodgers have one of the largest season-ticket bases of any MLB team. “That’s a good place to start,” he said.

Kasten called Los Angeles “probably the most diverse metropolitan city in Major League Baseball, particularly from the countries that will be represented in the competition. I’m speaking particularly of Asian fans. All of that, I think, was very appealing to Major League Baseball, and just the fact that we have experience with these kinds of events.”

San Diego Experience

The San Diego Padres’ recent experience hosting the 2016 All-Star Game will smooth operations for the ballclub’s role in the tournament’s second round, said Tom Seidler, the team’s senior vice-president of community and military affairs. The Padres hosted an opening round in 2009 and the finals in 2006.

Like the All-Star Game, the WBC attracts casual fans who require a bit more guidance than regulars. “In a typical Padres game, we might have 5,000 or 10,000 new fans,” Seidler said. “For the WBC and the All-Star Game, we may have 30,000 or 40,000 fans coming to our place for the first time.” These newbies need help finding parking and navigating around the stadium. “They take a bit longer and need a little bit more hand-holding,” he said.

Meeting their needs requires extra staffing and the ability to let fans know they should arrive early, said Seidler. Because security screening at bigger events takes longer than normal, gates will probably be opened earlier than usual. The team may need more bilingual staff or translators to help visitors who don’t speak English. Furthermore, the Padres expect to see a bigger media presence than at a typical Padres game, and accommodating both national and international media trucks will entail closing some of Petco’s parking lots, he said. “It’s a good challenge for our operations team, but most things that happen at the WBC will be something they’ve prepared for and did a great job on in July (at the All-Star Game),” he said.

Revenues from the event will cover the extra expenses required to staff it, said Seidler. “We work with Major League Baseball to make sure we’re appropriately staffed and can accommodate the crowd we have,” he said. “Again, having the All-Star Game as recently as July, hosting this now is perfect timing for us.” Seidler also highlighted the fact that San Diego itself is an experienced and capable host, citing the annual Comic-Con International convention. Incoming crowds find it easy to navigate thanks to the city’s walkability, Petco Park’s downtown location and its proximity to the airport.

Seidler said the franchise recently upgraded Petco Park to improve the fan experience, an effort that has paid off: USA Today selected the stadium as the top Major League ballpark last year. “Our job is to execute, to get folks in seamlessly through security, to make sure they know where to park even before they get in the gates,” he said. “Then, once they’re here, we’ve got a great 360-degree concourse that fans can walk around to experience the neat, different pockets and social spaces we have around the ballpark.”

All of the stadium’s built-in amenities, however, will likely take second to the showing on the field during the World Baseball Classic, and Seidler said fans in Southern California are especially looking to show their support for one or two teams in particular. “We’re sure rooting for Mexico for this region, especially with the Baja region next door to us,” he said. “We think if that happens, it’s really going to be a special atmosphere here if we get the U.S. and Mexico among the other teams participating.”

Targeted Marketing

All of the clubs hosting the World Baseball Classic work in conjunction with MLB to ensure that game-day operations run smoothly, said the Marlins’ Samson. It’s a symbiotic relationship in which both the teams and the league offer valuable input. “We help them decide what makes sense in the Miami area in terms of how to market to the individual demographics of the teams playing,” Samson said. “But in terms of final decisions and execution, MLB is very involved in that.”

The marketing strategy is very much up to the local clubs, which use a combination of radio, TV and especially digital media such as Twitter and Facebook, he said. In Miami, different national groups within the Spanish-speaking population require distinct marketing approaches; for instance, fans of the Dominican Republic team playing in the first round will see different campaign pitches than Colombian fans. “You don’t just do ‘Hispanic’ marketing,” Samson said. “General Hispanic marketing doesn’t work. What you do is market differently for different Hispanics.”

The World Baseball Classic is also benefiting from an increased awareness in the local public eye, Samson said. “Since this is the third iteration of the tournament here, the brand recognition of the WBC is much greater now,” he said. By January 2017, Samson said the Marlins had sold more tickets for the event than it had for the second round four years ago at the same point. And because the Marlins are hosting the 2017 All-Star Game, he likes to make another pitch to the local baseball audience: “People are used to the idea that in 2017 the best players in the world are going to come to Miami,” he said. “We’re just letting them know that they’re coming to Miami twice.”

Back on the Program

Paul Seiler, the executive director and CEO of USA Baseball, is pleased with the enthusiasm surrounding the tournament because the WBC could help to ensure that baseball and softball remain Olympic sports, he said. Neither have been part of the Olympics since Beijing in 2008 but both will return for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Beyond that, its future is uncertain.

“I think it helps,” Seiler said of the WBC pushing baseball’s prominence. “The more you can raise the profile of the sport internationally, the better it is. Just like the World Cup helps soccer and the Rugby World Cup helps rugby and the Cricket World Cup helps cricket, any global event that raises the profile and the popularity of your sport is a good thing. We see the World Baseball Classic as being very complementary to baseball and softball’s inclusion in the Olympic Games.”

After the sports were dropped from the Olympics, “we began the process of listening to the concerns of the International Olympic Committee,” Seiler said, “judging those concerns, recreating our profile, if you will, in an attempt to have both of those sports added back to the Olympic program.” As a result, one big change was to combine what had been two separate international sports federations into the World Baseball Softball Confederation in 2013. USA Baseball and its international counterparts then returned to the IOC with a plan to offer essentially one sport with two disciplines, he said. “The male discipline will be baseball,” he said, “and the female discipline will be softball. This approach creates an economy of scale to some degree to bring both of those sports back. Thankfully, we were successful.”

Another IOC concern that was resolved was addressing the lack of stadiums suitable for baseball and softball in prospective Olympic host cities—an issue that is not unique to these two sports, Seiler said. “Venues and the cost of operating an Olympic Games is astronomical,” he said. “So any sport is smart to look and say, ‘OK, how can we best present ourselves?’” The solution presented to the IOC was to fit both softball and baseball into the typical Olympics calendar by splitting the field time, he said; with the Olympics taking place over a 16-day period, baseball could be played during the first eight days and softball during the final eight days. “You would skin the infield, you would move the bases, move the fences in, you would take out the pitcher’s mound,” he said about the venue transition between the two sports. Housing concerns were also addressed. As the baseball teams leave the Olympic Village, they’d hand their room keys to the softball teams moving in to play during the second half of the Olympic Games, he said. Did these changes help sway the IOC’s decision? “Absolutely,” Seiler said. “We think that was effective.”

A Great Place

The Dodgers’ Kasten, who also serves as chairman of the MLB International Committee, likes where the sport of baseball is headed right now. “The game is in a great place,” both domestically and internationally, he said. Although he declined to share figures, Kasten said that MLB International reported its highest revenue in 2016. He also noted that MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred “has an aggressive plan for a lot more international play and a lot more international exposure.”

Park tamped down a report that the World Baseball Classic may hang up its spikes after the 2017 tournament. “It’s not true,” he said. “I honestly don’t know where that stuff came from. I saw the report. It’s just not accurate. As an institution, a brand, a property, the tournament is still very much in its infant stages. It makes for an exciting path forward, we think. But each one is still very much a learning process.”

What has Park encouraged is that so many countries approached MLB to take part in this year’s WBC. “There’s great interest across the world among national federations and event production companies to be a part of this,” he said. “You’re seeing an exciting boom in stadium development that does bode well for the tournament, and for the game overall, in the years to come.”