The WBC in July

One of the main complaints about the World Baseball Classic is that it’s played in March. That creates at least two hurdles for the event in terms of mass appeal. One, fans aren’t conditioned to watch competitive baseball in March. Second, a lot of the players back out due to the upcoming grind of their regular seasons. While it’s possible that younger generations could eventually learn to expect competitive March baseball and that future players might regard the tournament with more gravity, neither outcome is certain.

The alternative that is often discussed is holding the tournament in July. Dave has written about this twice, both in 2009 and in 2013. His “March Madness” style idea is very appealing, because it wouldn’t be necessary to alter the schedule other than to cancel the All-Star Game. It also creates less of a time commitment and ratchets up the excitement. It’s a great solution in my opinion, and I heartily endorse it. But what if we wanted to play the entire tournament in July, with more or less its current structure? Impossible, you say? I don’t think so.

Let’s start with this year’s schedule.

  • First Round/Pool A: March 6-9
  • First Round/Pool B: March 7-11
  • First Round/Pool C: March 9-13
  • First Round/Pool D: March 9-13
  • Second Round/Pool E: March 11-16
  • Second Round/Pool F: March 14-19
  • Semi-Finals/Finals: March 20-22

As you can see if you count it out, this makes for a 17-day tournament. The start times for Pools A, B and E are staggered to start earlier, primarily to give the Pool E winner time to fly from Tokyo to Los Angeles for the finals. Keep that in your back pocket for a minute.

What we need to do now is figure out how to squeeze 17 days of non-MLB games into July. Let’s walk through it, shall we?

Co-Opt the All-Star Break

The All-Star break is four days long. You would still have to cancel the All-Star Game in order to play the WBC in the middle of the season, so right there, we’re down to 13 days. I should note, however, that I’m advocating only for the cancellation of the All-Star Game itself. The league could still hold the vote, and still have the same process of naming starters and reserves. Why? Because there’s still money to be made here.

This is a secondary point, but walk with me a minute. The strategy here would be to partner with an eSports league. eSports is getting popular enough for some leagues to land TV deals. ESPN is covering eSports now, as well. Partnering with a league to have two of its marquee players play a video game of the All-Star Game would be a great way to (a) keep the All-Star Game vote sponsorship intact (though perhaps at a lower dollar total) and (b) catch the attention of a younger audience who perhaps don’t pay that much attention to baseball.

It might seem silly to list specific eSports leagues since we’re not exactly sure what the shelf of each league is, but leagues like League of Legends, Dota2 (Defense of the Ancients) and Counter Strike: Global Offensive are all popular currently. Four years from now, there probably will be others. Four years from now, virtual reality gaming could be a thing, and there may be an opportunity to play the game through VR, as well.

Bottom line: you can both cancel the All-Star Game and maintain some semblance of All-Star Game festivities/tradition, if you’re willing to get creative.

Start the Season A Week Early

There isn’t a player who will tell you that he needs every ounce of spring training. In a week or so, we’ll be seeing guys back out of spring games so that they don’t hurt themselves before the start of the regular season. So let’s just axe a week of it, or move up pitchers and catchers by a week, if the big business of Spring Training needs to keep churning. Start the season a week early, and you’ve account for all but six days of the 17 days required for the July version of the Classic.

Of course, there would need to be some concessions made by MLB teams in order to do this. Playing regular-season games for a week in March means that most of the northern teams won’t get to play at home on Opening Day. They’ll all have to start the season on the road, and then they can have their home openers at the time when Opening Day would normally be. This might be an annoyance for some teams, but would ultimately be a minor adjustment, as long as commissioner Rob Manfred could get all the owners on board. After all, teams don’t always start at home. If this is the season the northern teams don’t get to start at home, well, then they can start the season at home in (one of) the seasons between tournaments to make up for it.

Centralize the WBC in One Country

As we discussed above, the start of the WBC is staggered to allow for travel time ahead of the finals (and also perhaps to maximize the exposure for each host city, though I’m skeptical about the actual benefits of that). And it is cool that the tournament is played simultaneously on two continents. But if we centralize the tourney to one country, we get three days back. Now instead of the first round taking eight days, it can be over in five.

There could be other benefits to this, as well. By focusing the event on one country/region, it might be possible to celebrate the baseball culture of that country/region more effectively. The tournament could alternate between countries, probably starting with Japan. It could cultivate a real Olympic atmosphere, and that would hopefully draw more participation from the players and more press coverage.

This could help with attendance, too. WBC games have been sparsely attended in the past, it’s true, but I am of the belief that if games were played in July and had the buy-in from more players, the attendance problems would be largely solved. It might be possible to create more of a “March Madness” feel if all four pools began play at the same time. With only baseball on the sports calendar in July, TV ratings would likely improve as well.

Three Days To Go

So, we’re down to needing to squeeze three days into the calendar. There are a bunch of options here:

  • Play more regular-season double headers.
  • Reduce first-round Pool play from three games to two.
  • Start the season another three days earlier.
  • Move back the start of MLB’s postseason.
  • Eliminate games from MLB’s regular season.

These options don’t need to be executed in isolation. I don’t have the magic sauce for these final three days, but one of them — or a combination of them — could definitely work. I’m loathe to recommend that the season be shortened once every four years. That removes a sort of uniformity from the game that I personally find appealing. Others have made the suggestion, though, and it’s a legit option. I doubt it goes anywhere, because it would cost the owners money, but it’s still a legit option.

To me, the important point is that when you initially discuss this sort of idea, it seems daunting to find 17 days in the calendar, but with a couple of simple modifications, you’re down to needing only to find three days. That seems a lot less daunting, right? The five options I’ve outlined probably aren’t even the only options to make this jigsaw puzzle fit.

The World Baseball Classic is a great tournament. And its failure to capture the hearts and minds of Americans may not matter. After all, as Isabelle Minasian recently reminded us over at The Hardball Times, the tournament’s purpose is to grow the game globally. And perhaps playing in July is simply a non-starter for the NPB and KBO. But maybe MLB and the WBC can have its cake and eat it, too. It is possible to play the WBC at a time of year when more people can pay attention and not sacrifice a huge chunk of MLB’s regular season. Commissioner Rob Manfred has proven himself open to new ideas. Perhaps he’ll be open to this one.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Bonzi77member
6 years ago

There’s a chicken or the egg thing going on here. It’s obviously possible, if there was a will to do so, to fit the WBC in to the middle of the baseball season. The problem is that nobody cares enough about the WBC (I love the WBC, FWIW) to make the kind of moderately disruptive changes to the schedule it would require.

So essentially, you need to move it to the summer to get people to care more, but nobody cares enough to move it to the summer.

Dooduh
6 years ago
Reply to  Bonzi77

Moving it to June or July is better than what it is now but playing mid season brings its own complications like adding precious innings to arms, and upsetting rhythms that are in place, etc. Pitch limits are a good way to tamp down the effect of this.

I think some hybrid like splitting the tournament might be interesting also… like maybe playing the first or first and second rounds in March and then playing the semi and final rounds in July where the AS break would be… or some form of splitting it up like that… sort of how the WSOP splits up their main tournament to build excitement.

And let’s face it, no one cares about the actual AS game anyway. They are a relic in every sport now.

Danny Middaughmember
6 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

You could potentially shorten the first round by giving the semi-finalists a bye in the first round of the following tournament. Then you could have a 1-2 game play in round during Spring Training.

frangipard
6 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

This. Use the spring to narrow it down to four teams, then have a little mini-playoff held conurrently alongside the MLB all-star game. Maybe semi-finals on Tuesday, and then WBC final and ASG on Wednesday.

Sure a handful of guys would have to choose one over the other, but it’s not like guys don’t already make up excuses to get out of AS games.

Lanidrac
6 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

Hey, don’t confuse the MLB All-Star Game with the Pro Bowl or other All-Star Games! Baseball has by far the best All-Star game in North America! The Pro Bowl and NBA games are absolute jokes, and while the NHL game is now much better, they had to seriously adjust the normal game format in order to do so. Meanwhile, the MLB game is a lot of fun to watch.

nodak
6 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

I like the hybrid idea. Have the first couple rounds in March and then it allows for the build-up of “hype” around the game for the first half of the year. Then you play a 1 week series in July in place of the All-Star game.