The World Baseball Classic has started this weekend, and fans of all teams around the world are absolutely giddy and couldn't be happier.
Yes, the WBC started at 11:30 last night on MLB Network, but there was an extreme lack of buzz around the event. Despite three games kicking the tournament off, no one really cares all that much in America. There are numerous reasons as to why, and the lack of star players is merely the tip of the iceberg, and an easy cop-out for people who want to avoid the real issues with the WBC.
Firstly, the way the WBC is being aired this year is absolutely ridiculous. In 2009, the ratings for first round games on ESPN were up 40% from 2006, and 90% in total viewers, and the whole tournament was up 10% in ratings and 14% in viewership. This year, all of the games will be aired on MLB Network, and the moving of one of the two initial pools from America to Asia assures that half of the first round games will take place when a majority of Americans are sleeping. That's all well and good considering Team USA isn't in either of those pools, but for someone who is trying to get invested in the tournament, it's impossible to care about half of the teams since their games will be airing at very inconvenient times. The same will hold true in the second round, when one pool will be held in Tokyo and all but one game starts in the pre-dawn hours in America.
Secondly, MLB is making it impossible to watch the games unless you watch them live. There are no repeated airings of the games in the Asian pools throughout the day on MLB Network (an impossible venture due to coverage of Spring Training plus the other two pools). There is an online archive where you can stream games both live and on delay, but get this: it's not included with your MLB.tv subscription. In fact, you can't even pay for it separately if you want to. In order to use the online site, you need to be a subscriber of DirecTV, Bright House, or Time Warner. Only three providers are eligible for the WBC archive, and partial owners of the network Comcast and Cox aren't included in those three. But Time Warner (which owns as much of a stake in the network as both Comcast and Cox) and Bright House (which has no ownership in the network at all, but lets Time Warner negotiate on its behalf) get streaming rights? It's a very bizarre move from MLB, and alienates customers with not just Comcast and Cox, but also UVerse, Verizon, Dish, and Cablevision.
Thirdly, getting back to the issue of "star power." It's completely overblown, and a red herring to distract you from the disastrous other measures the league is taking in regards to the WBC. Everyone complains endlessly about the Olympics getting rid of baseball, and how the WBC is the replacement for that… but can you name a player from the 2008 US Olympic team aside from Stephen Strasburg (if you even knew he was on the team)? Because the Olympics took place in the midst of the baseball season, major league stars never took part after the amateurism restriction was lifted going into the 2000 Games. The US won gold that year, and 13 years later, only a handful of names are recognizable to baseball fans. The biggest star was probably Roy Oswalt or Ben Sheets. The 1996 bronze medal team, playing on our own home soil, looks like a ghost town of major league talent today aside from RA Dickey, Troy Glaus, and Mark Kotsay. Mark Kotsay was the third biggest "star" on the team that year, folks. Even that aforementioned 2008 team that won the bronze medal is devoid of star power five years later, aside from Strasburg, Brett Anderson, and Trevor Caihll. Don't trot out the argument that players need to be willing to play for their country in the WBC, and then lament the loss of baseball in the Olympics… because the Olympics was NEVER about star power.
So next week, when you start reading columns about why the WBC isn't taking off this year, and why ratings are cratering, and why there's a complete lack of chatter about the games, don't buy the argument that no one in America cares about the WBC because Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Buster Posey aren't playing. Is anyone really sitting there and saying "you know what, I was going to watch this WBC game between the US and Canada, but Adam Jones is playing center field instead of Mike Trout. Screw this!" Of course not. It reminds me a lot of people getting riled up about players dropping out of the All-Star Game. The biggest stars skipping the game has nothing to do with the ratings tanking. A stale format and a league that is seeing its television popularity waning has much more to do with people tuning out than a few players opting to take four days off to rest nagging injuries.