MLB and Baseball’s Olympic future

Hat tip to Mister-Baseball.com as they’ve picked up on a very interesting story about a potential development that would have a major impact on the future of international baseball.

In an interview with SportBusiness.com, the MLB vice-president and Team USA general manager, Bob Watson, has revealed that talks are ongoing between MLB the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regarding the prospect of Major League players participating in future Olympic baseball tournaments. This story has now also been picked up on the IBAF website.

The decision to withdraw baseball (and softball) from the Olympic schedule after this year’s event in Beijing was a devastating blow for the sport and particularly for its supporters here in Britain. The 2012 London Olympics sadly will provide no lasting legacy for the sport in the U.K. 

Baseball has never enjoyed widespread support within the Olympic community and the lack of involvement from Major League players has always been a major sticking point. It is true that the Olympic football tournament does not contain the world’s best players either, but FIFA’s World Cup is a well-established competition in its own right. The Olympics needs football more than football needs the Olympics, so it’s no surprise that the IOC are prepared to compromise a bit. Baseball’s bargaining position is much weaker though. The IOC knows that the sport is desperate to return to the Olympics, so they can set the agenda; it is MLB who will need to compromise if baseball is to regain its Olympic status.

In fairness to MLB, their position has not been one of sheer stubbornness. The Olympics takes place during the MLB regular season, so finding a practical solution has not been easy in the past and probably won’t be easy in the future either. Currently, some players on MLB 40-man rosters are allowed to participate in the Olympics, but that is as far as they have been prepared to go. MLB can hardly be expected to weaken its own competition for the sake of the Olympics; the teams and the media outlets paying millions for the rights to broadcast MLB games rightfully would not accept that idea even if it was considered.

Even the current Olympic football tournament, where each team can only select three players over the age of twenty-three, is causing plenty of headaches right at this moment. Before he was sold to AC Milan, Ronaldinho was threatening to break his contract with Barcelona if they refused him permission to play for Brazil. Meanwhile Rafa Benitez is moaning (yet again) because winger Ryan Babel wants to play for the Netherlands’ Olympic team. Liverpool paid over £10m for Babel and are no doubt paying him a healthy salary, so their reluctance to lose him for several weeks during the Premiership campaign is perfectly understandable. MLB teams will have the same misgivings about the possibility of losing some of their players during mid-season.

The possible solution being considered would involve extending the All Star break to allow players to participate in the Olympics without missing any MLB games. The IBAF story stresses that such a move would be considered if Chicago or Tokyo were awarded the right to host the 2016 Games. Both cities have made the IOC shortlist, accompanied by Madrid and Rio de Janeiro. Chicago has been touted as the favourite, although America have held the Games relatively recently (Atlanta in 1996) which may count against them. A final decision is not scheduled to be announced until October next year.

It’s clear that any such proposals will require a considerable amount of thought if they are to be implemented. A balance needs to be struck between benefiting from the prestige, publicity and funding (the latter being particularly important to emerging baseball nations) that regained Olympic status would bring, and risking major disruption to the MLB calendar. A shortened Olympic tournament that would allow Major Leaguers to be back with their teams within two weeks could be an acceptable compromise for both MLB and the IOC.

The World Baseball Classic (WBC) also has a very important role to play. If it can become a major international tournament capable of selling the sport to new audiences (which it certainly has the potential to do), MLB will be in a stronger position to work with the IOC in agreeing a format that suits both parties. MLB has already stated its desire to increase the preliminary rounds of the WBC for the 2013 event and that would help to off-set any reduction in the overall size of the Olympic tournament.

Whatever is decided, nothing will actually change until 2016 at the earliest. Once the Beijing Olympics draws to a close, baseball will be on the outside looking in and the main goal for the IBAF and MLB will be to get baseball back into the Olympics. It remains to be seen whether an agreement can be reached as the sport is going to have to give some ground to make it happen. Bob Watson’s comments are an indication that all parties are trying to work together to come up with a solution. That provides some reason for optimism, reinforced by Dr Harvey Schiller, President of the IBAF, once again raising the possibility of some baseball being played in London during the 2012 Olympics in a recent interview with Fox Business.

Now its up to the 2008 participants to put on a great tournament and to encourage the IOC to allow baseball to showcase its qualities in some form during 2012. Hopefully by then, the sport would have been reinstated for the 2016 Olympics, with the prospect of an increased number of Major Leaguers ready to represent their respective countries. The length of this year’s All Star Game has been a hot topic amongst baseball fans over the past few days. Maybe this time in 2016 it will be the extended length of the upcoming All Star break that will be the subject of much conversation?

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