Baseball just wrapped up an exciting and dramatic tournament at the Olympics, with nine of 16 games won by two runs or fewer. These close contests surely made the medal race all the more captivating, but it was the competition for national glory that truly created a compelling spectacle. On the heels of a successful World Baseball Classic and Olympics, baseball needs to seize the opportunity to pivot this beloved game into a truly global sport.
Tradition is pivotal to baseball’s appeal, as it is for the world’s most popular game (and international tournament model example), soccer. Yet baseball is only just recently undertaking attempts to start an international tradition with the World Baseball Classic. Several other tournaments have been repeatedly changed or scrapped, making tradition difficult to establish. Three tournaments currently occupy the top-tier of international competition.
World Baseball Classic
The WBC is the preeminent international tournament. Major League Baseball players participate, forming true all-star teams and enabling the highest level of international competition possible. Popularity, measured by ratings and player participation, have steadily increased since the inaugural 2006 iteration. Fan devotion reached a joyous high as Puerto Rico endured a bleach shortage as islanders bleached their hair in unison with their national team’s heroes during their glorious second-place run in 2017. In a sign of relative parity, three different nations have won the Classic and another four have finished in the top four.
Baseball has appeared as an official Olympic sport just six times (though it did enjoy multiple olympiads as an unofficial spectator game). In the 2020 Tokyo Games, the Central League, Pacific League, Korean League, and Chinese Professional Baseball League all suspended their schedules to allow their top players to compete. MLB has never done so. Baseball is scheduled to return to the Olympics in 2028 and possibly in 2032, but it will not be contested in Paris in 2024. Four nations have won gold, and three others have medaled.
The third top-tier intercontinental tournament is the Premier12. As the name implies, the top 12 national teams, as ranked by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, are invited to participate. The contest has been held twice and most recently served as one avenue for Olympic qualification. The tournament is held in November when most of the baseball world is in an offseason. South Korea and Japan won the first and second editions, respectively.
International baseball currently organizes itself into five continental confederations: Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. Each confederation hosts a national tournament for its constituent countries. These competitions typically occur on a biennial basis in odd-numbered years (though Oceania’s has not been consistent).
Soccer’s World Cup and Euros as Guides
Association football, better known to North Americans as soccer, is the globe’s most popular game. The beautiful game is also growing among Millennials and Generation Z in the United States.
Part of the reason for this broad support is international play. In addition to domestic club competitions, every year features national team tournaments. The World Cup, of course, is well known and the first or second most-watched sporting event in any given four-year cycle. The Euros, Gold Cup, and other national team tournaments are increasingly popular as well.
This international format provides fans across the globe a regular opportunity to invest their devotion, energy, and resources into high-level soccer beyond the more European-concentrated club game. Moreover, the casual fan or even patriotic non-fan can find himself or herself cheering for their national team, purchasing national team merchandise, following the exploits via the media, and posting about team success or failure on social media.
Embracing this international format and adapting it to baseball will grow the game’s popularity globally.
Adopting soccer’s model with a few tweaks, international baseball would be wise to continue the World Baseball Classic, treat the Olympics as a more serious event, and reformat the continental tournaments.
Something along these lines would be ideal (with a modified MLB season):
Annual calendar table
2025-2028 calendar table
|Year||Tournament||Max. Games per Team|
|2026||World Baseball Classic||10|
The Continental Series would serve two primary functions: qualifying for the global tournaments and providing a regular international event during non-global tournament years. Several changes could be implemented that would improve its quality and entertainment value.
First, the Continental Series should be open to major leaguers and all professional leagues. Allowing, encouraging, and incentivizing the best in the world to compete will improve the quality of play and lead to greater attention from the media and fans.
Second, the lines of continental confederations should be redrawn. The new entities would include North America, South America, East Asia, Europe, and Africa-Middle East-South Asia. This division better reflects the current differences in competitiveness while maintaining some geographic sensibility. A few notable realignments include Aruba and Curacao added to the newly-created South American Confederation. Israel will depart from its usual European sporting affiliation to join the multicontinental circuit.
Third, each region will adopt similar formats for play. Round-robin pools of the top eight teams should be utilized for the opening round. The top four will advance to a best-of-three semifinal followed by a one-game championship. The bottom team will be relegated to the next Continental Challenge.
The Challenge will serve as the undercard continental tournament. The winner advances to the next Continental Series.
Possible pools in 2025 based on current international rankings:
|North America||East Asia||South America||Europe||Africa-Middle East-South Asia|
|Puerto Rico||Hong Kong||Peru||France||Zimbabwe|
|North America||East Asia||South America||Europe||Africa-Middle East-South Asia|
|Guatemala||American Samoa||Bolivia||Great Britain||India|
|US Virgin Islands||New Zealand||Lithuania||Ghana|
|Northern Mariana Islands||Croatia||Turkey|
World Baseball Classic
The World Baseball Classic of 16 teams should continue with some slight changes.
First, each continental federation should be guaranteed two berths in the WBC. This change will guarantee broader geographic representation and thereby provide fans from baseball-developing countries a greater incentive to follow the WBC and become more committed devotees.
The final six spots should be awarded as bonuses to the confederations whose teams finished in the top six in the previous WBC. For example, the 2017 WBC’s top six included three North American teams (America, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic), one East Asian team (Japan), one European team (Netherlands), and one African-Middle Eastern-South Asian team (Israel). If this system were adopted today, the next WBC would feature five North American, three East Asian, three European, three A-ME-SA, and two South American.
This system will reward success and increase the likelihood of the best teams qualifying for and competing in the Classic.
The 16 teams will be divided into four pools of four teams each. Each team will play each country in its pool once, with the top two advancing to an elite eight knockout round.
The elite eight and final four semifinals will take the form of best of three contests. This tweak will intensify the tournament by cultivating rivalries, as national clubs will compete in a minimum of back-to-back games in an effort to advance.
Furthermore, a best of three format recognizes the inherent nature of baseball as a game where even a truly bad team can fairly routinely beat a much better team (think college and minor league clubs that sometimes beat big league teams in spring training). Acknowledging this reality, MLB has a long regular-season schedule to guarantee that the law of averages wins out and only the truly good teams advance to the playoffs. Similarly, international play will incorporate round-robin pools and best-of-threes.
However, the championship will remain a single-game affair. Given that the two finalists are likely to be the best teams in the world, multiple games are not as necessary to determine which team is truly better. Perhaps more importantly, a single-game championship could maximize the entertainment value a la a Super Bowl-like feel.
The Olympics, of course, are the signature worldwide athletic event. The Games channel nationalism into a more benign competition and unite the world in the peaceful play of sporting events. If baseball is to grow as a global game, then keeping on the Olympic program is a near necessity.
The Olympic competitors should be limited to eight teams. Each confederation’s most recent Continental Series champion would qualify. The final three spots would be awarded to the confederations that medaled in the previous Olympics. Using the 2020(1) tournament results, East Asia would receive one extra berth and North America two.
Similar to the WBC, the Olympics would feature pools of four. The top two teams would play a best of three followed by a one-game medal round.
Successful International Play
Treating international baseball as real contests and not merely exhibition games is a must to make this effort successful. In addition to adopting formats and tournaments that highlight national pride, putting player legacies on the line will increase the likelihood of the new schedule’s acceptance.
Given baseball’s longstanding obsession with statistics, a key component of treating international baseball as serious competition is recognizing player and team performance officially. The World Baseball and Softball Confederation should maintain an MLB-like public database with full statistics and highlighting records.
The WBSC should subsidize Baseball-Reference and Fan Graphs to include easily accessible international stats. Using Football(Soccer)-Reference as a template, a site visitor should be able to toggle seamlessly between MLB and international stats on a player’s page.
Hall of Fame voters could even start considering regular season, postseason, and international play when considering a candidate’s Cooperstown credentials.
Almost needless to say, but real money should be made available to the players, with bonuses awarded for team victories.
By making high-level international play a regular feature of the annual calendar, baseball will achieve multiple goals. International competition will grow the game globally, create new traditions, provide an opportunity for players and fans to enjoy competition at the highest level, and increase the number of young athletes worldwide who choose baseball as their primary sport.
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