After a six-year pandemic-induced hiatus, baseball’s international championship returns this March. The 2023 World Baseball Classic is baseball's version of the World Cup with 20 countries competing to be crowned world champions. The 20 qualifying countries will begin in competition in pool play. There are four pools consisting of five teams each, where the top two from each pool advance to the bracket stage of the tournament. The differentiating factor between the WBC and baseball's Olympic event is the talent pool. The Olympics are played during the MLB season, meaning that MLB players do not participate in the event. Since the WBC occurs just before the MLB season starts, many of the MLB’s biggest stars will leave spring training early with the goal of helping their country become world champions. This year’s classic has a plethora of storylines to follow as the sport looks to make waves around the globe.
Sponsors Capitalizing on Global Exposure
WBC’s global popularity presents a unique opportunity for brands to gain exposure worldwide. According to Sports Business Journal, “Sponsorship revenue is up 31% from the 2017 event, with 52 sponsors across 10 countries for the WBC, including four with global marketing rights: Kowa, Konami, THK, and NX Nippon Express.” The 2023 MLB season will see teams wearing jersey patch sponsors for the first time ever and the WBC will follow suit. Team USA will display DirecTV jersey patches and T-Mobile advertising on their batting helmets. Many sponsors expect this to be a breakout year for the competition because of the amount of superstar talent participating. Viewership should surge as Fox Sports takes over for MLB Network as the exclusive broadcasting home of the 2023 WBC.
USA Looking to Defend Their Title
The United States are the most recent WBC champions after capturing their first title back in 2017. They enter this year’s competition with a loaded roster consisting of 19 MLB all-stars and 4 MVPs. Such a concentration of talent will create many tough decisions for manager Mark Derosa, as he is forced to decide which stars do not crack the starting lineup. One lock for the starting lineup is Center Fielder Mike Trout, a 3-time American League Most Valuable Player and one of the top hitters in the world. Pitching poses more of an unknown as two of the USA’s top starting pitchers, Nestor Cortes Jr. and Clayton Kershaw, had to withdraw from the competition due to injury concerns. The USA will not have an easy road to a championship repeat, as there is MLB talent stacked across the competition. The U.S. does, however, have a home-field advantage: they are the only squad that will not have to leave their country to play a game.
The Dominican Republic enters the tournament as the odds-on favorite, and rightfully so. The D.R. has assembled a powerhouse team with all-stars at nearly every position, but the separating factor is reigning National League Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara. Alcantara is the best pitcher in the tournament and the Dominican squad will lean on him heavily to shut down opponents. Another major threat to the title is team Japan, who are led by phenom Shohei Ohtani. Ohtani, the reigning AL MVP, is widely regarded as the best player in the world because he is both a superstar hitter and pitcher. Japan has won the first two World Baseball Classics in 2006 and 2009 and are looking to regain their title as world champions. While these are the three most talented teams in the tournament on paper, anything can happen once they get out on the field.
Czech Republic’s Unlikely Journey
The Czech Republic enters the tournament as one of the few teams without major league talent on their roster. In fact, there has not been a Czech-born major league player since 1952. They earned their spot in the tournament with a stunning victory over Spain in the qualifying round. A recent social media video featured members of the Czech Republic team discussing their day jobs as high school teachers, sales managers, and financial traders among other professions. The team's schedule is more akin to a high school team than a major league squad. Each member works their job during the day and then heads to the field at 5:30 PM for practice. It is truly remarkable what this team has been able to accomplish so far, and they will have a chance to continue their Cinderella run as they match up with teams such as Japan and Korea in pool play.
With MLB viewership on the decline in recent years, the sport is in desperate need of a bounceback season. Changes to the game have been made to increase audiences. Through new pitch clock implementation and the infield shift ban, viewers should expect a quicker, more aesthetic game. The WBC provides an opportunity to prepare fans worldwide for the upcoming season’s developments, with two full weeks of ultra-competitive international play as an alternative to the typically mundane spring training. The global exposure the sport receives could prove invaluable as the game looks to evolve for a younger generation. Fans from across the globe will watch in hopes that their country has what it takes to bring home the gold.