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The World Baseball Classic came of age in 2023

This year’s tournament was the best one yet, and got people excited for its future.

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Photo by Daniel Shirey/WBCI/MLB Photos via Getty Images

I’ve always enjoyed the World Baseball Classic. It provides a different look at the game via players playing for their country rather than MLB (or NPB or KBO) teams and gets the game exposed in places where it hadn’t previously been a big sport (Great Britain and the Czech Republic in 2023, in particular). This year’s tournament provided so many great, compelling games and matchups.

Sara Sanchez posted a wrap of her WBC experience yesterday and Josh Timmers weighed in with a question for you in BCB After Dark (please go vote in the poll!). Now it’s my turn to give you my thoughts and impressions of the WBC.

I feel privileged to have been able to attend one WBC game this year, even though it was a blowout USA win over Canada, and though I didn’t see the enthusiastic crowds in Miami like Sara Sanchez did (and thanks to Sara for her great coverage from there, and also thanks to Josh for his great work on daily WBC posts), I could still feel the excitement at Chase Field over this worldwide tournament.

TV ratings and attendance for this year’s WBC broke records:

According to the organisers, the fifth edition of the tournament drew 1,010,999 fans through the first round, representing a 98-per-cent increase from the previous WBC record in 2017. The overall average attendance per game was 25,275, a 24-per-cent increase over the previous average record.

Games in Japan set records for the most attendance for any round in the tournament, with 361,976 fans attending games at the Tokyo Dome. The WBC first-round single-game attendance record was set when Mexico defeated the United States in front of 47,534 fans in Arizona. The US venues in Arizona and Miami set records for single-day attendance, with 68,147 and 71,289 in Miami for two games each on Saturday March 11.

In the US, the Americans’ game against Great Britain on Fox and Fox Deportes averaged 1.592 million viewers for the country’s most-watched first round game since 2009.

MLB announced late Wednesday that this year’s WBC set an attendance record for the entire tournament, Final attendance was 1,306,414, more than a 20 percent increase over the previous record in 2017 of 1,086,720. This AP article says the event generated “revenue of $90 million to $100 million.”

TV ratings got even better later in the tournament:

The United States’ 14-2 semifinal romp over Cuba on Sunday at Miami’s LoanDepot Park, powered by Trea Turner’s two home runs, averaged 1.94 million viewers on FS1, while the U.S.’s 9-7 quarterfinals victory over Venezuela on Saturday averaged 2.26 million on Fox. Both games were in prime time.

The last game of the quarterfinals, both semifinals and the final game in Miami were all sold out, and it did exceptionally well on TV in the USA:

More on TV ratings for the championship game:

A screenwriter could not have scripted a better conclusion, a video fantasy matchup out of MLB The Show coming to life. The World Baseball Classic final — which ended with Shohei Ohtani striking out Mike Trout on a sweeping slider to clinch Japan’s 3-2 win over the United States — peaked at 6.5 million viewers on FS1 and FOX Deportes in the final 15 minutes. The game itself averaged 4.48 million viewers on FS1, which Austin Karp of Sports Business Journal cited was higher than all but three Division League playoff games last season.

Here’s the impact this WBC had worldwide:

Even players from other sports are talking about baseball:

Baseball is continuing to promote itself in Europe. The Cubs and Cardinals will meet in London for a series this June, and there will be more MLB games in London in 2024 and 2026. In 2025, for the first time, MLB teams will play each other in Paris, France. (Hint, hint, MLB: Send the Cubs there too!) It’s possible in the future, MLB games could be played in the Netherlands or Italy — both countries have active baseball leagues.

Without wanting to re-start yesterday’s discussion begun by Sara about possible MLB expansion to San Juan and/or Mexico City, it’s my feeling that’s not going to happen largely because MLB owners want big money for expansion franchises and that doesn’t seem likely to come from those places. In addition, there are travel issues — Mexico City is a four-hour flight from Houston, the closest MLB city, and San Juan is two and a half hours from Miami — and Mexico City rests at 7,200 feet elevation, and any stadium built there would be like Coors Field on steroids.

Better, I think, would be to continue to play regular-season series in Puerto Rico and Mexico, which have been done several times in the past. In fact, this year the Giants and Padres will play in Monterrey, Mexico on April 29 and 30, a city that’s a lot closer to USA destinations than Mexico City. Increasing the number of these series and perhaps playing in the Dominican Republic at some point in the future would help elevate MLB interest in those countries. We’ve seen how passionate those fans have been at WBC games and absolutely, MLB should tap into that.

The WBC ended with a scene you couldn’t have scripted better for a movie, two of the greatest players in baseball today facing each other, with Shohei Ohtani striking out his Angels teammate Mike Trout to win the title for Japan. That gave Ohtani’s home country its third championship in WBC history (also 2006 and 2009):

This tweet, though, sums up the question as to why the team that has both these players hasn’t had a winning season since 2015:

Honestly, I wouldn’t expect 2023 to be much better for the Angels. Ohtani said, after his strikeout won the game:

“I believe this is the best moment in my life,” Ohtani said through an interpreter, adding later, “I happened to be able to get the M.V.P., but this really proves that Japanese baseball can beat any team in the world.”

Ohtani is a free agent after 2024. I wouldn’t think he’ll be returning to the Angels next year.

As for Trout:

So many players who participated in the WBC felt the positive vibes:

I could go on, but you get the idea. The WBC has clearly captured the imagination of even casual baseball fans, and I couldn’t be happier for the growth of the game internationally.

There have been some questions about whether March is the best time to play such a tournament, going up TV-wise against March Madness. November, after the season ends, is problematic because players not in the postseason would be idle for a month, plus there’s TV competition from football. Suspending the season in July for two weeks would be good for TV purposes since there’s no real sports competition for baseball on TV in mid-July — but that’s also when many people spend time outdoors or travel on vacation and TV use in general is down. Also in July, there’d be the same issue about idling players not in the tournament for two weeks. March might not be ideal, but it certainly worked this year.

The MLB/MLBPA collective-bargaining agreement from last year made provisions for the next World Baseball Classic to be played in 2026, and now that’s a done deal:

You might wonder why it’s three years from now instead of four, which was the gap between the tournaments in 2009, 2013 and 2017 (and there was to be one in 2021, but the pandemic cancelled that). That’s likely because MLB is assured of having a season in 2026, but the CBA expires in December 2026 and there’s a strong possibility we could have another lockout at that time. That would jeopardize a 2027 WBC.

Regardless of the reason, I’m excited for the next World Baseball Classic. Perhaps some games could be played in Puerto Rico, Mexico or the Dominican Republic — or even in Europe, to try to expand the excitement there. Perhaps some games, maybe even the semifinals and finals, could be played in Toronto, which has a domed stadium suitable for such an event.

Wherever it’s played, I’ll certainly be watching, and if I have a chance to attend a WBC game in 2026, I definitely will. Well done, MLB and all the participating countries and players.