Friday, March 1, 2013

Patriotism as Product: The World Baseball Classic

The weather outside my hotel room in Chicago is the same as it was when I arrived two days ago- cold and dreary. The longing for a new baseball season is only intensified! Once every four years baseball fans do not have to wait until MLB's opening day to enjoy meaningful games. The World Baseball Classic is growing in fan interest and sponsorship support as a global sporting event. The 2013 tournament begins tomorrow- a 16-team field grouped into four pools playing in Asia and North America. The top two teams in each pool move on to the semi-final round in Miami, playing for the right to be one of four teams advancing to the championship round in San Francisco. The 2013 WBC culminates with the championship game on March 19.

Some observers of baseball might ask why the World Baseball Classic, which was first held in 2006 and again in 2009, even exists. After all, MLB has a World Series and its winner is referred to as World Champions. If anything, would a different world champion from WBC competition negatively impact perceptions of MLB's World Series champion? The inspiration behind the WBC is not as much about crowning a champion as it is building interest globally for the product known as baseball. MLB responded to the International Olympic Committee's decision to eliminate baseball from the Summer Games by creating an international tournament. Although the decision to drop baseball from the Olympics was a crushing blow, a silver lining can be found in that cloud. The Summer Olympics schedule prohibited the best baseball players in the world from competing because it conflicted with the MLB season. The WBC begins and ends before Opening Day. Some MLB players are reluctant to participate in the WBC because of injury concerns, but many more players jump at the chance to represent their country in a global baseball tournament.

Patriotism and national pride are powerful motivations for product consumption in general and sports in particular. These influences lead many of us to become captivated by Olympics coverage when the Summer and Winter Games are held. In the case of the WBC, the players represent us, a group of men figuratively carrying the flag for their respective countries. Building associations with baseball via a national team is a way to build fan relationships among people who may lack a strong connection (or none at all) to an MLB team or players. And, affinity for a country's team can affect feelings toward MLB teams when players from WBC teams return to their MLB clubs.

The time for the words "play ball" is approaching. For MLB, it also marks an opportunity to leverage its prowess in digital marketing and media to grow its brand and extend its reach globally.