As a baseball junkie, it’s not a surprise that the advent and growth of the World Baseball Classic has been captivating theater for me as both a fan and sports marketer. There’s something about the WBC’s early March time frame that fills a real void. Football is on hiatus, and there’s only so much pre-draft coverage that one can take.
The NCAA hoop season is in pre-March madness mode. The NBA and NHL are mid-season, while the PGA Tour and Pro tennis circuits have yet to hit full stride. And, of course, baseball exhibition games are still in their “split squad, get the kinks out” phase. Yes, despite the fact that we have expanded 24/7 sports coverage on multiple media platforms, early March is still the closest that there is (minus the one day after the MLB All-Star game) to a lull on the American sports calendar.
But the WBC is more than just a diversion. It actually strikes me that within its evolution, we may be finding an antidote to the malaise and scrutiny that has permeated fan attitudes about All-Star games. As a sports researcher, I can attest to the well-documented phenomenon that the shine is off All-Star games in each of the four major team sports, including baseball. Yes, there is still plenty of well-executed and creative activation for fans and industry peers who head out to these annual extravaganzas, now elongated into multi-day carnivals.
But relative to decades past, fan interest is at an all-time low, and as the most recent NFL Pro Bowl and NBA All Star weekend exemplify, the games themselves lack a compelling story line, receive sub-optimal participation from marquis players and suffer from heightened media criticism for their general irrelevance and questionable effort among those who do play.
Enter the WBC, where a number of activation mechanisms make the events more compelling than the MLB All-Star game and its counterparts across the professional team sports. First and foremost, there is the participation of many of baseball’s biggest stars. With the March pre-season time frame, one can argue that the WBC is a reasonable surrogate for Spring Training. In other words, the risk of player injury or concern that the event will detract or distract from a player’s primary regular season obligations is minimized.
For the fan, you have the compelling story line of players competing for their country and flexible definitions of eligibility that leverage ethnic pride for several players that may not actually be nationals of the WBC country that they represent. The timing of WBC is also well positioned to play to pent-up fan demand after a lengthy offseason of withdrawal. We haven’t seen many of our favorites on the field since September, and here they are, actually playing games that mean something. While WBC games don’t “count,” this is mitigated by the fact that the tournament unfolds over a reasonable period of time, allowing an accumulative effect that can build interest and greater competitive significance.
One will have six full months to see one’s favorite players suit up for the home team, but with WBC, there is a novelty to see them wage a mini-campaign with a different set of teammates ... a refreshing prelude to the season to come. The pre-season time frame also works as a window into a non-sensationalized effort on the part of some of the more marginal or up and coming players that are trying to work their way into the big show. It’s “American Idol” or “The Big Break” meets “Hard Knocks” without the dramatic background music. The use of multiple game sites affords more fans to get involved on a grass roots level, simultaneously increasing the opportunity for brands to activate with enhanced audience reach and frequency.
Now, it would be a stretch for me to suggest that the WBC as a model is directly transferrable to the other team sports, and that’s not my thesis, here. Clearly the international structure and the number of games required present the most obvious challenges. But as we struggle through the late winter lull, the WBC does offer some unique insight into what has eroded the prominence of traditional all-star games, and may provide an impetus for additional fan research and proactive thinking that can resuscitate the “all-star franchise” for the other leagues. For MLB, the WBC has created a brand extension that adds value to the core product and thus also provides a meaningful outlet for sponsors to resonate with a coveted audience. That’s something any sports marketer would covet.