“That’s my great goal is to take the game international,” Selig said Tuesday in New York.
Of course. Those in charge of America’s pastime see opportunities outside the North America and Caribbean countries where the sport is already widely played. Each league wants to market to the billion-person nations of China and India as well as burgeoning economies like Brazil and Turkey.
When it comes to international sports, no two events garner more eyeballs, more devotion than the World Cup and the Olympic Games. Baseball is not in either one, and unless it makes some drastic foot-based rule changes, only the Olympics are a possibility for worldwide attention.
So how about it, Bud? How about letting Major League players participate in future Olympics to help baseball return to the Games?
“It just isn’t possible. I wish it was,” Selig said.
Not possible? Why not?
“First of all, we’d be playing to Thanksgiving, maybe Dec. 1,” Selig said.
Nonsense. Utter nonsense. A paltry excuse from a man who has provided hundreds of them over his time as commissioner. We’ll get to that in a moment.
Cutting Through Selig’s Lie
If Selig were honest, he would offer the real reason MLB stars are not permitted to go for the gold: money. Including Spring Training, the World Baseball Classic (the league’s own international tournament), regular season and playoffs, some players will play as many as 200 baseball games this year and every one earns revenue for MLB and its teams.
Selig represents the owners who earn that revenue. The owners’ thoughts on allowing their players in the Summer Games would probably match those of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who opposes letting his guys play in the Olympic basketball tournament.
“If you look up stupid in the dictionary you see a picture of the USA Dream Team playing for free for corporate America so the U.S. Olympic Committee can make billions of dollars,” Cuban said.
When sports owners sign athletes to contracts, they don’t want those athletes competing (or worse, hurting themselves) in games that do not put any money in their coffers.
So back to Selig’s excuse, and it is a stupid one because the commissioner does not even understand the format of the Olympic Games, last played in Beijing 2008.
“Some teams would have to give up players [while] other teams would sit around for three and a half weeks,” Selig said.
Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. WRONG.
Beijing’s baseball tournament lasted only 11 days (with two off-days), and since athletes don’t travel to the Olympics on boats anymore, Major League Baseball would only have to go on hiatus for two weeks tops.
It would still be two weeks more than MLB usually takes off, though, so let’s work through how to accomplish a feat Selig’s sees as impossible —
- Reduce the Spring Training schedule by one week. This is an easy fix. MLB started its spring on Feb. 21 this year, one of its earliest starts, to accommodate the World Baseball Classic. Teams played as many as 36 Spring games (more than 22% of the regular season’s length). Let’s cut that back by three or four.
- Start the regular season in the last week of March. The worry about starting the season early is always snow and freezing temperatures. Okay, then play all the Week 1 games in the domes/warm spots: Los Angeles, Anaheim, Seattle, Arizona, Texas, Houston, Toronto, Miami, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Milwaukee, San Diego, Oakland, San Francisco, Washington, St. Louis, Cincinnati.
- Cancel (or move) the All-Star Game in Olympic years. This is the toughest cut, because baseball’s All-Star Game remains most competitive (it is easier to go all out for three innings instead of three periods or four quarters) and quite popular. But today’s ASG is not the Midsummer Classic of old. Interleague play happens every day of the season, and fans can watch any player they want year-round on National TV or MLB.tv. The All-Star Game’s magic is not gone, but there is far less pixie dust.
- Start the MLB Playoffs three days later. Starting the season one week earlier and knocking out the four-day midseason break earned us 11 days. Pushing the postseason start by three days would put World Series Game 7 only as late as November 4-5. That is Thanksgiving Week in Liberia, though, so we see Selig’s point.
It is possible, Bud. You don’t have to wish it.
Precedent on the Ice
Once upon a time, another major North American league did not allow its top players into the Olympic Movement. National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman watched as basketball leaped in international popularity after the United States “Dream Team” and other NBA players joined the Olympics in 1992.
Bettman wanted to do the same and negotiated to put NHL players in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. The decision was considered a massive risk. From the New York Times in 1997:
“During the Olympics, the league will shut down for 17 days, an unprecedented hiatus that entails numerous calculated business risks. With the Olympic hockey games relegated to late-night television, with the national teams hastily thrown together, and with the fans back home without their regular N.H.L. teams to follow, the whole plan could backfire…”
Four successful Olympic tournaments later, the NHL is reportedly going to put in another three-week break in its upcoming schedule to let its stars go to Sochi in February. Now hockey players and fans anticipate the Winter Olympics as the sport’s ultimate worldwide showcase in an intense competition for Gold.
Support, But Little Else, from MLB
MLB endorses the effort to re-install baseball and softball in the Olympic program after they became the first sports since the 1930’s to be completely removed from the Games. The league once had a laughable steroid policy. Now Selig brags that the World Anti-Doping Agency, an initiative started by the International Olympic Committee, “has raved” about MLB’s drug testing program.
Now Baseball and softball have a real chance to return to the Olympics. The IOC will vote in September to add either baseball/softball, wrestling (recently dropped from the “core sports”) or squash to the 2020 Games, and at the same session will choose among Istanbul, Tokyo or Madrid as host city for 2020.
The extent of MLB’s support, though, amounts to a letter of recommendation but no promise of Major League players. Selig is essentially giving baseball’s Olympic plan a pat on the ass, a hearty “go get ’em, kid” and getting back to his own matters. It looks like the 2020 spot will go to wrestling, if the words of the IOC President are an indicator.
“We have [Roger] Federer, [Roger] Nadal in tennis, LeBron James in basketball,” President Jacques Rogge said in 2008. “We want these guys at the Games. We’re not saying it should be an entire Major League team, but we want the top athletes here at the Olympics.”
How the Olympics Would Benefit MLB
Baseball’s bid sits only with Selig and 30 franchise owners. This group of men and businesses must realize the future of baseball and softball is worth more than having a small percentage of players competing in a dozen games every four years:
- The game grows around the world. The IOC says London 2012 (Slogan: Inspire a Generation) had a “global reach” of 3.6 billion people on television and broadcasters showed the Games on 1.9 billion video streams. In the next decade, that number will expand, and internet viewership will allow fans to watch any sport they want… including baseball.
- The tournament itself could be one of the Olympics’ best events. Remember that the baseball tournament was only open to professionals (minor leagues and international leagues) for three Summer Games, taking place in Sydney, Athens and Beijing. Those are not exactly baseball hotbeds, especially the last two. Imagine the 2020 Olympic baseball tournament in Tokyo, or the 2024 tournament in Toronto or Los Angeles’ Dodger Stadium. In future Olympics, baseball could become a highlight of the Games instead of sitting off to the side.
- You are showing top-level athletes you care, even if you don’t. MLB’s draft slotting system limits how much elite talents can receive out of high school and college. That is a problem for the R&D of the sport, especially when there are so many more football scholarships out there for top athletes. But one carrot football cannot offer is the chance to achieve the universal sporting dream of becoming an Olympian.
- It makes the World Baseball Classic better. The tournament is scheduled to take place just seven months after every Olympics, and what better second act? The WBC could gain more attention as players and fans alike look to avenge the Olympic results or defend the gold medal. And the tournament remains unique from the Olympics because of the “home-game” flavor and excitement when played in Caribbean nations or U.S. stadiums with an international fanbase.
- Star players get exposed to a worldwide audience. Marketers pimp out their top athletes every four years around Olympic time; you could not turn a corner in London last summer without seeing Jessica Ennis or Usain Bolt or Andy Murray or another sporting celebrity. It is indicative of baseball’s dearth of celebrities that MLB and FOX spent so much time celebrating Mariano Rivera on the All-Star Game broadcast. The league’s marketing strategy cannot continue to lean so heavily on nostalgia, and the easiest way to get people around the world to pay attention to young stars like Matt Harvey, Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are to get them to the Olympics and the resulting marketing storm.
Baseball and softball will likely not make it back to the Olympics this September without allowing MLB players. Bettman realized almost two decades ago how much those rings can help grow a sport.
“We’re doing this to build the game of hockey, pure and simple,” the NHL Commissioner said in 1995. “We think whatever benefits are recouped, it will end up making this game bigger, stronger and healthier.”
But the most important aspect of allowing Major League players in the Olympics is not about marketing or growing the game or any feature like that. Young people around the world dream of going to the Olympic Games: earning a trip to one of the world’s great cities for the two-and-a-half week spectacle, walking behind their country’s flag in the Opening Ceremonies, playing for that nation in the sport they have devoted their life to, playing for not only a medal but the sporting immortality that joins it. We love the Olympics because it is unique on this Earth as its greatest competition.
If Bud Selig wants to end his commissioner tenure next year with a memorable moment, all he has to do is simply say “yes” to the Olympic Games. It would promote and improve the sport of baseball through and through, all around the world.