MLB hopes to profit from Cuba’s participation in 2013 WBC
Next month, London will inaugurate the 2012 Summer Olympics, and corporate America will be hoping to cash in on the buzz surrounding the games. NBC-TV, which paid $1.18 billion for rights to broadcast the games in the United States, had already generated more than $900 million in advertising revenue by this February.
Adweek magazine says viewership of the July 27-Aug. 12 games will exceed the 211 million who watched the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
Unfortunately for Cuba, baseball won’t be on the agenda. That decision was taken back in 2005, when the International Olympic Committee excluded baseball and softball from this year’s games. It will likely not be part of the 2016 Olympics either.
The IOC decision benefits Major League Baseball because it virtually guarantees that MLB’s World Baseball Classic will be the only truly Olympic-sized baseball tournament on the planet when it’s held in 2013.
At least some people interested in seeing Cuba’s baseball team play in the 2013 WBC have already forgotten about the Olympics.
“There’s great interest in Cuba’s baseball greatness, but if the world believes that it is seeing Cuba’s best at the 2013 WBC, against the world’s current best, then few outside Cuba will mourn its absence from the Olympics,” said Sports Illustrated writer Scott Price. “If there were no WBC, however, it would be a different story. Then baseball’s absence from the Olympics would be a true loss.”.
With ticket sales, ad revenues and merchandising at stake during the 2013 WBC, Major League Baseball is expecting a huge windfall. The 2009 WBC — hosted by the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico and Japan — already demonstrated its commercial strength in the United States.
According to Reuters, WBC doubled the number of sponsors from 26 in 2006 to 56 in 2009, with AT&T, Best Buy, McDonald’s and PepsiCo among them.
That number is expected to grow in 2013, when the WBC will be held in the United States, Germany, Taiwan and Panama.
Figures released by WBC showed that attendance of Round One of its games in 2009 eclipsed that of Round One (in 2006) by nearly 38%. More than 450,000 fans attended Round One WBC games in 2009 compared with just 326,000 fans for the 2006 WBC.
U.S. TV ratings for Round One of the 2009 WBC games broadcast on ESPN averaged a 1.3 rating, up over 40% from 2006. The four games averaged 1.74 million viewers, up 90% compared to Round One WBC games in 2006.
During the 2009 WBC games, MLB President Bob DuPuy told Reuters, without disclosing figures, that it broke a record for single-day merchandise sales for a non-World Series event at Toronto’s Rogers Center during the Canadian national team’s game against Team USA.
DuPuy also mentioned that sales in Japan and Mexico were strong during the 2009 WBC, with TV ratings in Japan during that country’s game against Korea (which featured Japanese MLB star Ichiro Suzuki) being higher than the Beijing Olympics.
In addition, five of the 2009 WBC Round One games were the highest-rated non-soccer events ever broadcast on ESPN Deportes, including the Mar. 10 game between Cuba and Australia, which posted a 3.3 rating (ESPN’s highest-rated Round One WBC game).
Already, the WBC got a marketing boost earlier this month when famed New York Yankees manager Joe Torre was named manager of Team USA for the 2013 games.
The Cuban national baseball team, which won second place during the first WBC games in 2006, and was defeated by Japan during the 2009 WBC games, is still expected to be a huge draw next year.
What will distinguish the 2013 games from its previous events will be its size. This time around, there will be 28 countries competing, which will truly transform the WBC into the “Olympics of baseball.” Sixteen teams will play in a double-elimination qualifying round in late 2012; afterwards, the top four teams will join 12 other countries in the final round.
Along with the original group of countries that played in previous WBC games, new teams stepping into the fray will be from Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Philippines, Spain and Thailand.
MLB spokesman John Blundell asserted that his organization is still striving to keep baseball in the Olympics.
“We’re working hard to get [baseball] back into [the Olympics] in the future,” he told CubaNews, but that MLB was only going so far to do so, due to its financial interests. “We can’t stop our regular season.”
Blundell also refuted the idea that baseball is strictly an American sport, which allegedly helped eliminate the game from this year’s Olympics. He mentioned the presence of Cuba’s national team, as well as other countries during previous WBC games. “Just look at Japan and Taiwan, and the strides that China and Netherlands have made,” he said. “Israel will also be in [2013 WBC], and we’re expecting a competitive team from them.”
However, some say that the IOC’s decision played into the hands of WBC organizers, who had financial reasons to keep MLB players from going to the 2012 Olympics.
“That would have required MLB to shut down its season for a minimum of 10 days during a pivotal [and profitable] part of its season,” said baseball agent Joe Kehoskie.
Cuba baseball maven Peter Bjarkman, who runs the BaseballdeCuba.com website, says MLB control over WBC lets it dictate when its players can participate in those games. The 2013 WBC event will take place before regular season MLB games begin in April 2013.
“The Olympics were not during NBA [basketball] or NHL [hockey] season. There was no sacrifice for them, unlike MLB,” he said, referring to professional basketball and hockey players who were allowed by their leagues to participate in previous Olympic events, such as the NBA’s “dream team.”
Aside from generating international media attention, the Cuban team will not be compensated when these games take place next year.
During the 2006 and 2009 WBC games, as a condition for being granted a U.S. Treasury Department license to play, the Cuban players could not receive any proceeds from event organizers. Instead, Cuba agreed to donate its share of WBC proceeds to charity.
The U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control is likely to impose the same conditions on Cuba to get a license to play in the next WBC. As far as fans like Bjarkman are concerned, that’s fine, since as he says, the Cubans will still have a chance to “beat the Yankees at their own game.”
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