Friday, March 6, 2009

World Baseball Classic Preview: Games to Watch, Surprising ESPN Blackouts

Ok, it's really not a preview per se, since the games have already started. But with Japan and Korea each handily beating their first round opponents, there's been no real surprises thus far. In this article, I intend to highlight the first round games to watch as well as pontificate over why some of the WBC's most desirable games seem to be missing from the ESPN programming list. I intend for this blog to have a strong statistical bent, but I also want to do it from the fan's point of view. So here I want to analyze whether the WBC and ESPN are maximizing the fan enjoyment of this event.

Below you'll see the schedule. Highlighted are the "games to watch" as well as the surprising omissions from ESPN's programming:

The games to watch are of course, somewhat arbitrary, and they of course could change depending on what happens in the previous games. I used the following 5 criteria to identify good games:

1) Good quality teams. Nobody wants to see South Africa vs. the Netherlands. Nuff said.

2) Players we know. A few of the teams are quality, but have little MLB talent on the roster (Japan, Korea, Cuba). It's fine to have perhaps one of those teams featured in a game, as it can be fun to see unknowns best the MLB players we all know and love, but a match-up featuring two teams full of no-names (at least to American fans) is not going to be a draw. It's one reason that the WBC Finals between Cuba and Japan was disappointing - yes the teams were talented, but nobody knew the players

3) Home games. Home games are going to be more fun to watch because simply because the crowd will be charged up. This should be particularly true in the countries that seem to care more about this tournament (Japan, Puerto Rico, and perhaps Mexico).

4) Meaningful games. As I talked about here - the odd quirk of the double-elimination tournament is that the two advancing teams play what is basically an exhibition game to determine the "pool winner". It's hard to see that there will be much intensity in these games, though if the above 3 requirements are fulfilled, it should still be good watching.

5) Rivalries. Some countries have strong natural baseball or political rivalries that if they meet up, should provide some entertainment - Japan vs. Korea, Puerto Rico vs. Dominican Republic, USA vs. Cuba. The individual quality of the teams are important, but some games add up to more than the sum of their parts.

Saturday March 7 5:00 AM - Korea @ Japan ESPN2
This figures to be the biggest and best match-up of the Asian pool. Korea and Japan have an intense baseball rivalry, and this game will actually mean something (unlike the Game 6 "final" which will be meaningless). There was a sell out crowd of 43,000 for Japan's first game, but only 18,000 for Korea vs. Chinese Taipei. Expect a sell out here - two rivals, both quality teams, playing in a meaningful game in front of a home crowd (the importance of which I talked about earlier). Can't get better than that - too bad it's on at 5 AM.

Saturday March 7 2:00 PM - United States @ Canada ESPN
This is the first test of the US team. They are playing in Canada and it will be interesting to see if Canadian fans care about this tournament. Another Canadian defeat of the US as happened in 2006 would be an embarrassment.

Sunday March 8 8:00 PM - (likely) United States vs. Venezuela (in Canada) ESPN
Assuming both the US and Venezuela do what they're supposed to in the first round, this should be the first great match-up. Too bad it's going to be played all the way up in Canada in the sterile Rogers Centre. Should be good baseball nonetheless. The loser will likely play Canada for the right to advance.

Monday March 9 6:30 PM - (likely) Dominican Republic @ Puerto Rico MLBNetwork
This type of game is the entire reason they built the WBC in the first place. Both PR and DR are favored and if they take care of business, these great baseball rivals will face off in San Juan for what should be a great game. Seeing those Puerto Rican fans getting into it was great in 2006 and it should be a sold out excited crowd this time too. Inexplicably, ESPN chose not to air this one on either of its networks - the culprit is probably college basketball.

Tuesday March 10 6:30 PM - (likely) Panama @ Puerto Rico MLBNetwork
This game pits the loser of the previous DR vs. PR game against what will likely be Panama. The loser is out and the winner advances. If the Dominican is the team playing, it will be an great team seeing if they can avoid early elimination. If it's Puerto Rico, the fans will be manic - great for television - ooops this one's not on ESPN either!!

Tuesday March 10 10 PM - (likely) Cuba @ Mexico MLBNetwork
Sadly, another good game not on TV. This game should pit Cuba, last year's runner-up vs. Mexico, the home team. I'd be excited to see the Mexican fans get into the game in an important game against another good ballclub. Alas, NONE of the games in Mexico City are being broadcast by ESPN. Granted, this pool has the fewest major leaguers of any of them, but again, the WBC is more about the fans and the atmosphere, and I would have liked to be able to watch it.

March 14 and March 17 - Round 2 in Miami and San Diego
By the second round, one would think the MLB would have things in place to be televised - especially in Miami, where if things go according to Bud Selig's wishes (as I said in this post however, upsets are likely), the 4 teams will be the US, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico. The WBC did it right this time by placing the games in a place where many different nationalities live, hopefully increasing the atmosphere of games. ESPN however, is strangely choosing not to air the first two games of the Miami pool, or Game 5 in which the loser goes home and the winner advances to the semifinals. Also not on TV is the Game 4 of the San Diego pool, which likely will contain Cuba, Mexico, Japan, and Korea.

I'm sure that MLB tried their hardest to get these games on TV, and I'm sure there were scheduling conflicts already in place from ESPN, but it's hard not to wonder why when they are showing plenty of games, they are choosing not to show some of the best ones. Of the 6 best first round games I identified, only 3 will be on TV. Good promotion involves showing us the best of the best and perhaps ignoring the games where the game will be a blowout in front of a half-empty crowd. Let's hope WBC learns its lesson for 2012.