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    Friday, March 1, 2013

    International Baseball: Growth in Europe, Brazil, and the World

    Well, I was working on a response to another ESPN piece, but this one will be quicker and require a little less prep. Michael Baumann writes about Alex Liddi, the first European born-and-raised MLB player from Italy, and what he means for the game and it’s future.

    Liddi is more than likely not a star, so it seems like it would be difficult for MLB to put too much on him right now. If they hype him as a sign of the game’s success in Europe and he then flops, it might have negative long-term effects.

    But what can major league teams do to ensure the overseas cultivation of the game? I think one of the biggest things would be to get a star from overseas, like the first Italian/German/Netherlands-born All-Star and hype them, like what happened with Ichiro (and later, Hideki Matsui and others). Except that was a totally different situation; there isn’t some European league making Ichiro-type players, where the best might hold their own in the pro circuit. Getting to that stage will take time.

    Maybe we’ll be pleasantly surprised, and, say, Max Kepler will burst onto the scene. Even then, that would be a few years off-I don’t know of any European prospects that have gotten any attention other than Kepler, and while he’s hit well in the minors (including a .297/.387/.539 line in the minors last season), he’s still just a 19-year old in Rookie ball. At best, that’s several years off.

    Baumann mentions holding WBC rounds in one of the nations that’s seeing some growth. I totally agree with that idea, actually. Giving people in Europe live games with high-talent teams would be a good and fairly easy way to get people in Europe excited about baseball. Putting a pool with, say, the dark-horse Netherlands team, Spain and Italy (for locality reasons) and maybe the Dominican Republic or USA (some team with a number of MLB stars) could do wonders for popularity. I mean, barnstorming in Japan with players like Babe Ruth was supposed to be one of the reasons for baseball’s growth there, right?

    Technically, there was a qualifying round held in Germany for this version, but that’s different. The MLB would need their best across the pond to really instill excitement, and while I give them kudos for including as many teams as possible to help spread baseball even more, most of the teams in the qualifying rounds were light on star power. They’d need an actual preliminary round for that.

    And I was all ready to start bashing MLB for not putting a preliminary round there this year...but I looked up where they ended up picking. The US and Japan were two of them-it makes sense, as those are the two that will probably see the best ticket sales. MLB needs to make sure the World Baseball Classic is profitable enough to continue into the future, and those two do a decent job of that. Also, Japan has won both past WBCs, so that seems more than fair for them.

    The other two sites are Puerto Rico and China, both of which are pretty obviously markets where baseball is trying to increase its foothold. Puerto Rico is finally starting to rebound in baseball production after being added to the draft killed its initial popularity. China...I actually have no idea about Chinese baseball. This seems like as good a market as any to start to grow into.

    I really can’t say that I would move it from any of those four. The US would be my first choice, especially since they host later rounds. But that might also be the best way for MLB to make it popular enough in the US to continue. Despite being very much for international growth promotion, if US fans aren’t interested enough, the WBC will not last. So I guess the next best thing would be a qualifier in Europe in 2016 or 2017 (whenever the next one will be).

    What else does that leave? As best as I can tell, foreign leagues and international baseball academies like those in Latin America are the next two things on the list. There actually already is an MLB European Academy, and Alex Liddi was the first graduate of it to make it to the bigs. Teams investing more into their European branch would probably help teams to some extent-I mean, Europe is an untapped market, and if a team started investing in it now, it could wind up the biggest draw for the whole continent. If Europe has the same talent in it that Latin America does (or is even close to it), then a team having near-exclusive access to its best players would be a huge advantage. It would just take time.

    Except...I’m pretty sure the last CBA, which limited spending on foreign prospects and signees, probably caps that. I’m not sure if teams can dump the money necessary into their baseball academies. Actually, I’m not entirely sure how most academies are set up, let alone this one. I’m not the biggest source on knowledge on foreign amateur players, but I’m fairly sure that teams operate their own academies in Latin America. The European Academy doesn’t seem to be associated with any one team, so it might be a league-wide thing. And I really don’t have any idea how much they're spending on it now, although since the game is experience record-profits, spending more to try and cultivate a world-wide base seems like a reasonable investment.

    The other option, which might also involve league spending, would be to increase awareness, which Baumann states could best be done with baseball leagues in Europe. Or rather, he specifies “credible” leagues. I wasn’t aware of this, but there actually are “major” baseball leagues in Europe. Two of them in fact; an Italian one and a Dutch one, each with minor leagues. Right now, though, neither appears to be even on the level of the high minor leagues, talent-wise.

    However, funding these or tying them into a larger European league could do wonders. Funding the leagues to give them advertising power, increased training capabilities, and such could drum up more excitement among fans in Europe and even sway some younger Europeans to take it up. Who knows, maybe it will eventually reach the level of the Mexican League, which currently sits at the AAA level, even if it isn’t directly tied to MLB’s feeder system in the way the International and Pacific Coast Leagues are.

    And all this talk of raising awareness in Europe reminded me of something else. Just as Italy saw its first native son reach the the pros in 2011 in Alex Liddi, another country duplicated the feat last year. The Blue Jays debuted corner infielder and outfielder Yan Gomes (now of the Indians). Gomes is the first and only Brazilian major leaguer, although like Liddi, he looks to be more of a role-player than a star. Brazil will also be sending a team to the World Baseball Classic this spring. Everything that I’ve been saying about Europe goes the same for Brazil. And with the country hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, it might be even more primed to host games in the next WBC.

    As far as I'm aware, though, there is no Brazilian league of any sort. That's a more major problem to handle, as far as generating fans goes. MLB would almost certainly need to spend more in that aspect-starting a league from scratch would require much more capital than increasing the status of an existing league (although a more Europe-wide league would probably be more useful than one or two single-country ones), but Brazil is the fifth-biggest nation in the world and a quarter of the size of all of Europe by itself. A market that large has to be attractive if you really do want to expand internationally, and would justify that type of risk, I would think.

    Both of these would take a large investment on MLB’s part. But just think of the payoff-baseball is already seeing record profits. Imagine what would happen with an even larger, world-wide fan base. The growth of the game should always be considered in the best interest of those in charge, so even if it takes significant money now, expanding into places like Europe or Brazil can only be a good idea in the long-run.

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