Baseball's Struggle for Global Relevance
The U.S. game's top executive insists that last month's championship is meaningful, while dodging calls for a real "world" series.
The FCCJ was recently graced by the presence of Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Rob Manfred, who visited Japan on the occasion of the 4th World Baseball Classic, a tournament created by MLB to spur international interest in the gameManfred, a smooth, well-dressed Harvard Law School graduate in his late fifties, presides over the second most profitable sports league in the world. With 2016 a record year for industry revenues and overall business performance at nearly $10 billion a year, the MLB trails only the National Football League at $13 billion. In the global rankings, it is far ahead of the National Basketball Association, which takes in $5.6 billion for the 3rd spot, and the UK’s Premier League, which draws about $4 billion a year in the 4th spot. The Japanese baseball league, Nippon Professional Baseball, is ranked 10th with revenue of $1.3 billion dollarsWith overall business performance at nearly $10 billion a year, the MLB trails only the National Football League at $13 billionManfred is the 10th commissioner in a long line of notable executives dating back to Judge Keensaw Landis, a man who rooted out gambling in baseball and banned several players for life for conspiring to fix the 1919 World Series, but also prolonged the segregation of organized baseball. Happy Chandler, a former U.S. Senator and governor of Kentucky, broke the color line, allowing Jackie Robinson to become the first black player for the Brooklyn Dodgers while Ford Frick, a former sports writer and National League PR executive, suspended baseball relations with Japan in 1965 in an argument over the rights to Japanese pitcher Masanori Murakami. Bowie Kuhn ushered in World Series night games, while Bud Selig, former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, monetized the game, increasing revenue six-fold through a program of taxpayer-funded stadiums, integrated media and merchandising rights, regional TV packages and digital platformsManfred, a labor lawyer, has made collective bargaining his specialty since joining MLB in 1987. It is primarily because of his efforts that the league has gone for a quarter century without a strike or a lockoutTHE FUTURE OF THE WORLD BASEBALL CLASSICrnIn a wide-ranging Q&A session, Manfred touched on a number of subjects, including U.S. media reports that suggested the 2017 World Baseball Classic held last month might be the last one. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said with some irritation. “The WBC is broadcast in 182 countries. It is a $100 million event . . . that has been profitable from Day One and has really grown in terms of its revenue significance and its popularity around the world. The WBC is the premier international baseball event . . . because it allows the greatest baseball players in the world to compete against each other and allows them to have that competition with the extra honor of representing their country. So I really don’t know where the report came from.Manfred acknowledged, however, that the WBC popularity is greatest in Japan, followed by Taiwan and Korea – and not the U.S., where baseball was invented. Japan won the first two tournaments in 2006 and 2009, thanks to the participation of its MLB players, including Ichiro Suzuki, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish. The Dominican Republic won in 2013The value of the tournament for MLB, which controls WBC global rights, is as a tool aimed at the growing international marketAs a result, games in the aforementioned Asian countries draw top TV ratings. Sixty million fans in Japan tuned in for the 2006 WBC final to witness Japan’s victory over Cuba in San Diego, while a Japan-Taiwan 2013 matchup was the most watched TV program in Taiwanese history. By contrast, WBC ratings in the U.S. were, in fact, so bad that ESPN, the country’s top sports network, stopped televising the games. This may have something to do with the fact that the U.S had yet to win a medal, much less make the finals, until this year, when they won the event. The games have only been shown on MLB TV, but primarily as filler, but that may change after the Americans' showing this yearThe problem, Manfred explained, has been that the WBC is always held in March, when most MLB players are just starting their spring training. Many players are reluctant to commit to playing for the national team and risking injury before the start of the season. Players from Japan, South Korean and Taiwan, by contrast, start their training in January and are in top shape by the time the tourney startsSo the value of the tournament for MLB, which controls WBC global rights, is as a tool aimed at the growing international market. And though WBC ratings were sky high in Puerto Rico, for example, baseball is still struggling to catch on in China and Brazil, where the growing middle classes are an MLB targetThe other international stage for baseball is the Olympics, with baseball back on the schedule for the 2020 Tokyo games. Manfred said, however, that he did not think MLB would ever supply players from their top rosters to play in the games. “Having players away from their teams in mid-season would alter the competition,” he said. “And I don’t think owners would support any kind of break in our season other than the all-star game. Continuity is the key to our competition.BASEBALL IMMIGRANTSrnManfred also talked about being invited to Trump Tower this January to meet with the U.S. president, who is a huge New York Yankees baseball fan, shortly before the presidential inauguration. Despite the immigration issues raised by Trump during the election campaign, he does not see anything that would have an effect on professional baseball’s increasingly international roster, be it in regard to Japanese players and their families living in the U.S. during the baseball season, or players and their families from Latin America – Mexico in particular. “We are getting our visas in exactly the same way that we have for many years,” he said, “and I don’t foresee any changes.The Major League debut of Superstar Shoei Otani, of the 2016 Japan Champion Nippon Ham Fighters and MVP of the Pacific League last year, however, may be delayed, though it will have nothing to do with Trump. A new labor agreement is now in place, limiting the money payable to international free agents under 26 years old and with less than six years as a professional – a move designed to put them under the same limitations as active major leaguers who must put in six years with an MLB team before earning free agency. MLB teams now are not allowed to spend more than $6 million per year total on international free agentsWhat this means, said Manfred, is that Otani will not be able to go to the MLB until the end of the 2019 season if he wants to negotiate a big free-agent contract like the 7-year, $155 million deal that Masahiro Tanaka inked with the New York Yankees in 2014“We already have a real World Series and it is played in the United States every October.If Otani wants to go earlier via the posting system that allows NPB teams to send players to the U.S. before free-agent eligibility for a special posting fee amounting to $20 million, the most he could possibly get is that $6 million a year. That’s assuming that the team that signed him wanted to spend all of its allotted pool money for free agents on one playerAsked if a special exception could be made for Otani, grandfathering him in under the old posting rules which did not have a salary cap, Manfred replied, “Before being elected MLB commissioner, I was a labor lawyer. And rule Number One in labor negotiations is that individually driven exceptions with a union get you into a lot of trouble. As appealing as Mr. Otani is to everyone, it’s important when doing a collective bargaining agreement to keep your eyes on what the rule should be for all players and not get distracted by the appeal of any one person.Manfred dismissed the idea of an MLB franchise in Tokyo or Osaka, or an MLB Asia Division with teams in South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, citing the long travel distances and jet lag, before addressing the question of a “real World Series.” This is a reference to the wish of Japanese baseball leaders to hold a series between the American and Japanese champions, with the winners claiming the title of “world champions.The idea dates back to the days of the V-9 Giants of Sadaharu Oh and Shigeo Nagashima and the special dream of Yomiuri owner Matsutaro Shoriki to have his team, the perennial Japan champions, take on the best of the U.S. teams. MLB teams – and quite often very good ones – have often visited Japan in the post-season to play good-will exhibition games on schedules determined in the pre-season and won a significant majority of their games. The winners of the Fall Classic, however, have never made the tripPast commissioners have rebuffed such suggestions by saying that the level of Japanese baseball was not quite up to MLB standards. “How can the Japanese compete when American players no longer usable in the major leagues were playing regularly in Japan?” said Commissioner Ford Frick back in 1965“The time is not yet right,” said Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1981. He formed a committee to study the question and that committee was never heard from again. And in 2005, Commissioner Bud Selig rejected an offer of $100,000,000 from Softbank and Fukuoka Hawks’ owner Masayoshi Son to hold such a series. “That amount of money is nothing to us,” Son was told by a spokesman for SeligManfred’s response to this question? “We already have a real World Series and it is played in the United States every October.by Robert Whiting, Number 1 Shimbun of The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan (FCCJ) , published in April 2017. Robert Whiting is the author of You Gotta Have Wa, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat and The Meaning of Ichiro but has since been cured of his addiction to baseball