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Monday, August 25, 2008

Did MLB Make Olympic Mistake by Not Sending Best Players?

Alex Rodriguez
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images
Alex Rodriguez and other stars could have boosted MLB's exposure, but at what price?
By Keith Law

Major League Baseball had a significant opportunity to market the game via the Beijing Olympics, but by allowing a U.S. roster comprised of a mix of prospects and older fringe big leaguers, MLB has foregone that opportunity and likely sealed the sport's fate as an Olympic event. The NBA is helped in this department by its schedule, since August falls right in the heart of its offseason, but it also has reaped enormous benefits by using the Olympics as a global marketing vehicle. The American basketball team has been a fan favorite in China, as opposed to the U.S. baseball team, which has been busy plowing over the Chinese team's catchers and trying to knock them into next week.

Now the NBA is planning to set up an affiliated professional league in China, while the China Baseball League's foreign partner is Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball.

Baseball's fundamental problem with the Olympics is one of timing; MLB would need to suspend its season for two weeks or continue playing games without the star players who would be at the Games. The former option raises questions of keeping non-Olympic players in shape and ready to play. The latter means teams with more Olympic participants would be penalized by having games played without some of their best players count in the standings. It's a logistical problem either way. The benefit could be substantial for two reasons. First, China easily could prove to be a good source of amateur talent, to say nothing of other countries where Olympic baseball might be aired. (I've argued for a broader World Baseball Classic format with qualifying rounds so countries with fledgling baseball movements get to play meaningful games, even in preliminary rounds.) Second, China's large consumer class could prove to be a major revenue source for MLB, as it has for the NBA. That league took in about $50 million in revenue from China in 2006 (according to an Associated Press report from October 2007), and from 2006 to 2007, its revenue from merchandise sales in China increased by 60 percent. Sending the best U.S. team possible to the Olympics -- not to mention all the NBA stars playing for other countries in Beijing -- is a key part of the NBA's growth strategy in China. As I said in Thursday's chat, there's little point to having baseball in the Olympics if the best players aren't there. American viewers clearly won't watch in big numbers if the players aren't known quantities. Viewers outside the United States aren't likely to stick with the sport if the quality of play isn't high or if they assume it's not high because the players aren't major leaguers or known quantities. The World Baseball Classic might, and should in time, become the global marketing event MLB wants, but it will take time and must be built up -- and even the WBC has struggled with player defections and refusals, the likes of which the NBA never has had to deal with. The Beijing Olympics presented MLB with a one-time opportunity to increase baseball's footprint in China, and MLB chose to pass.

By Jayson Stark

First off, nobody wants to see baseball remain an Olympic sport more than I do. Heck, I love baseball. You think I enjoy seeing it evicted from the greatest sporting spectacle on earth, while, say, rhythmic gymnastics gets to stick around? Sheez, I almost could take that as a personal affront (as much as I respect and admire rhythmic gymnasts everywhere, of course). But if stopping the MLB season for two weeks is the price we have to pay to get baseball back on the Olympics' cool-sport list, sorry. It's just not worth it. It all goes back to the question we need to ask about every major decision in life: Does the upside win a unanimous decision from the downside? And the answer here is: Nope. Not this time. Take a two-week chunk out of the baseball season now? In mid- to late August? Just when it's getting good? No thanks. And remember, the Olympics aren't always held in August. Some years, they're in September. So how would that work? Stop the season on Labor Day weekend and pick it up with two weeks to go? Not practical. Not possible. But let's play devil's advocate. Let's say we did it. Let's say the United States sent its BASEBALL Dream Team -- David Wright, Derek Jeter, Chase Utley, Torii Hunter, Ryan Howard, CC Sabathia, Roy Halladay, Josh Beckett and Joe Nathan (just for starters) -- to China. Let's say they then whomped Cuba, beat on Japan, blew out China and rampaged to a gold medal. They still wouldn't be a bigger story than Michael Phelps. Would they? They still wouldn't be a bigger story than Kerry Walsh and Misty May-Treanor. Would they? They still would be no more than -- what? -- the 14th biggest story of the Olympics? Or the 114th? So, what's the upside? There's just not enough. Sure, you might be able to sell a few more Sabathia T-shirts in Beijing. There would be some boost in interest and dollar signs. No doubt. But let's get this straight: The reason the NBA expects to generate $100 million in revenue from China this year isn't because America sent its stars to the Olympics. It's because Yao Ming has made our stars relevant in the Chinese's eyes, in their culture. What baseball needs to connect with the Chinese is not a better U.S. Olympic team. It needs a Yao Ming of baseball. And there are lots of ways to make that happen besides stopping the season and temporarily exporting Utley. Look around. Baseball is doing those things. All of them. There's an MLB office in China. There's a baseball academy in China. The Dodgers and the Yankees are already heavily invested in China, and more teams will follow. The Padres and the Dodgers just played two exhibition games in China. Much of China's Olympic baseball program was funded and staffed by the United States. The World Baseball Classic will include a team from China. And frankly, I bet the WBC will sell baseball around the planet way better than the Olympics ever could -- if only because it gives baseball its own stage. So while I'm saddened to see baseball make its not-so-grand exit from the Games, it's the Olympics' loss -- not ours. Last time I looked, it sure seemed baseball was a global sport, whether the International Olympic Committee thinks it is or not. And it's growing more global every day. Isn't it? Any time the folks at Olympic central want to come to their senses and acknowledge that baseball is a worthy sport -- with or without Wright and Jeter -- it's cool with me. In the meantime, I think baseball will survive -- no matter how few Sabathia shirts it sells in Beijing.


Here's the roster for the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing:

Brett Anderson LHP AA Midland/OAK
Jake Arrieta RHP A Frederick/BAL
Brian Barden INF AAA Memphis/STL
Matthew Brown INF AAA Salt Lake/LAA
Trevor Cahill RHP AA Midland/OAK
Jeremy Cummings RHP AAA Durham/TAM
Jason Donald INF AA Reading/PHI
Brian Duensing LHP AAA Rochester/MIN
Dexter Fowler OF AA Tulsa/COL
John Gall OF AAA Albuquerque/FLA
Mike Hessman INF AAA Toledo/DET
Kevin Jepsen RHP AAA Salt Lake/LAA
Brandon Knight RHP AAA New Orleans/NYM
Mike Koplove RHP AAA Las Vegas/LAD
Matt LaPorta OF AA Akron/CLE
Lou Marson C AA Reading/PHI
Blaine Neal RHP AAA Toledo/DET
Jayson Nix 2B AAA Colo. Springs/COL
Nate Schierholtz OF AAA Fresno/SFO
Jeff Stevens RHP AAA Buffalo/CLE
Stephen Strasburg RHP San Diego State
Taylor Teagarden C AAA Oklahoma/TEX
Terry Tiffee INF AAA Las Vegas/LAD
Casey Weathers RHP AA Tulsa/COL