Much of the news emanating from Major League Baseball this week confirms the view that baseball is thriving internationally. The 2008 regular season schedule was officially released, with the opening series in Japan taking centre stage. MLB also announced that the Dodgers and the Padres will be playing two spring training games in China on the 15th and 16th of March. These will be held in the 12,000 capacity Wukesong Baseball Field in Beijing, the main base for the Olympic baseball tournament taking place later this year. Sadly, this good news was off-set by the confirmation that Great Britain’s chances of playing in this stadium had been dashed due to off-the-field problems.
While the International Baseball Federation stressed “issues with player availability”, the British Baseball Federation has made it clear that a lack of funding was the main reason for their withdrawal from the final Olympic qualifying tournament (the BBF also stated that the IBAF was “unable to provide a large enough sum” to cover the cost of the trip, which perhaps suggests why the international body tried to emphasise other issues in their reporting of the news). On its own, this announcement was depressing enough for British baseball fans, whose morale had been boosted by the team’s excellent showing in the European Baseball Championships back in September last year. However, the BBF’s statement made it clear that this was only the beginning of the hardship that the sport will face in Britain over the coming years.
The declassification of baseball and softball as Olympic sports came as a particularly big blow for British fans who can appreciate the impact staging these events in London in 2012 might have had for the sports in this country. Every country’s baseball set-up will be hit by the subsequent reduction in funding, but Britain will probably feel the pinch more than anyone due to the obvious desire of the authorities to channel all funds to Olympic sports. Whether the staging of the Games is perceived as a success by the British public will be shaped partly by how well GB does in the medal table, so baseball and softball will be left out in the cold.
This poses significant challenges, but there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of baseball in Britain. MLB’s international office for Europe, Middle East and Africa is based in London and this provides Britain with a unique opportunity to work closely with the Major Leagues. BaseballSoftballUK, “the development agency for baseball and softball in the United Kingdom”, has published an international strategy for the two sports as part of their application to receive funding from the Central Council for Physical Recreation. This includes the BBF’s five long-term international aims and objectives, two of which involve Major League Baseball:
“To continue to encourage and inform support provided by Major League Baseball (MLB) for the promotion and development of baseball in Europe.
To lobby for an invitation to the Great Britain Baseball Team to participate in MLB’s World Baseball Classic in 2009 and beyond (the tournament, introduced in 2006, will take place every four years from 2009 and is the equivalent of football’s World Cup)”.
That second aim catches the eye! While baseball needs to fight to regain its place at the Olympic table (and this is also one of the BBF’s stated aims and objectives), MLB’s launch of the World Baseball Classic (WBC) in 2006 was a sign that they understand the crucial role international baseball can play in promoting the sport (and therefore MLB) and that they cannot rely on the Olympics alone to achieve this. The inaugural staging of the WBC was a resounding success and the 2009 event promises to be even better, not least because many sceptical Major Leaguers were clearly won over by the unique atmosphere created by an international competition. The idea that Great Britain could be a part of it is extremely exciting, so exciting in fact that you would be forgiven for dismissing it as fantasy so as not to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen. But the BBF has a logical and persuasive argument to support their case. The 2006 WBC included sixteen teams, two of which were the top two European sides at the time: Holland and Italy. As Great Britain won the silver medal in the 2007 European Baseball Championships, they should be the team to accompany Holland as the European representatives in 2009. Italy, Germany and Spain will undoubtedly put forward their own cases to counter this argument, but the Great Britain team appears to have a decent chance. A decision is expected in February and if Britain is successful it would really cushion the blow of missing out on the Olympic qualifier.
What benefit would British baseball gain from entry to the WBC? Simply being there will put the WBC on to the sports pages of the national newspapers and would raise the possibility of the tournament receiving some TV coverage over here. The WBC is the perfect way for British sports fans to be introduced to baseball. It’s not going to convert millions over night, but it would be a great start.
And a bit of interest in baseball during the spring of 2009 could then be followed up a year later by a spring training game or two being played in London. The NFL, NHL and NBA all visited these shores in 2007, leaving MLB as the only major North American sport not to make a direct move into the British market. This is surprising considering how proactive MLB has been in taking its product out to new audiences in recent years. The lack of a purpose built facility is clearly a factor, but it’s surely something that could be overcome with support from MLB and various interested parties in the U.K.
It’s going to be difficult for baseball to develop in Britain without much external funding, but a helping hand from MLB (who do already provide funding and support to BaseballSoftballUK) could really make a big difference. A lot of people have worked hard for many years to develop the sport at grass roots level in Britain. If these current challenging times can be embraced as a catalyst for promoting the game in new ways, baseball can continue to grow and will be in an even better position if and when baseball regains its Olympic status.