Having been unceremoniously cast out of the Olympic Games after Beijing 2008, baseball and softball were reinstated on Wednesday when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted unanimously to add five new sports to the Tokyo 2020 programme.
The news, though widely expected, came as a welcome boost to the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) and professional organisations around the world. Yet significant challenges remain for both sports - the WBSC, for example, has yet to strike an agreement over the participation of players from Major League Baseball (MLB), the world’s preeminent baseball league, while the Tokyo 2020 organising committee’s decision to allow only six national teams to compete in each sport has left the global governing body with a qualification and formatting headache.
Following Wednesday’s decision, SportsPro editor Eoin Connolly sat down with WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari and secretary general Beng Choo Low on Thursday in Rio de Janeiro to hear their reaction to the news and to find out what happens next.
First of all, Riccardo, what was your reaction to yesterday’s vote?
RF: First of all, I was emotional because after baseball and softball were out of the Olympics, I think to offer to our athletes the dream to come back and the fans of their countries to the biggest stage - the Olympics - is something tremendous. But apart from that, I think that the result of yesterday shows and demonstrates the tremendous work that we did during the last four or five years, especially after the merger between softball and baseball.
We are talking about a freshness to the Olympics. I think that, more than this, we now have one federation, two disciplines, according to Agenda 2020. We have the quality of competition, high quality. We have worked very hard to globalise our sport worldwide, including in the professional tournaments, so I think we did a great job. We have to continue to work, for sure, but we have all the requirements to remain permanent in the programme. What we’re able to show at Tokyo 2020 for the Olympics is the quality of baseball and softball now.
Is this vindication for the decision to conglomerate baseball and softball?
RF: No, no. To merge was a decision that we achieved through discussions together. We have only one sport, and together we can even better promote our sport worldwide. Even Beng, who is coming from softball, can tell you how this merger was really successful for softball.
BCL: It’s given us an opportunity to sit back and look at ourselves and make changes that were needed to be changed. Sometimes when you are in something you tend to move along. But I think this has enabled us, and we have made a lot of changes which were much better for both the sports to move forward. From now on, it’s been good for us as well. We looked at it positively. They were changes that we needed to make and we continue to make changes to ensure that we have a much better reach now in terms of our sport, both baseball and softball.
Do you think that it’s significant that you’ve had Agenda 2020 and that the next Games are in Tokyo, or do you think that there would have been a route back into the Olympics for baseball and softball in any case?
RF: For sure, Agenda 2020 and the vision of [IOC president Thomas] Bach give more flexibility to the Games. I think that Agenda 2020 can join better the Games with the host city. For us - and also for the other sports - it was a great opportunity. And I think its something that we have to continue to improve, to understand how we can continue to become a permanent sport. But for sure, Agenda 2020 played a very important role for us to be back in the Olympics.
BCL: I think the important part is that the opportunity was made available through Agenda 2020, and it also enabled us to look at how we could fit in and show the adaptability of our sports, particularly in terms of youth appeal. If you look at all the sports that were on Tokyo 2020, we understood that the IOC is looking at innovation, looking at youth appeal, and it was a question of adapting to the situation, not so much as whether we were going to get in either way. Its just that when the opportunity is given to you, you have to be able to adapt to the situation and see what needs to be done.
"I am confident that we will have MLB players in Tokyo 2020."
What are the first priorities for you moving forward? For you, Riccardo, I assume the need to get MLB on board is quite pressing.
RF: Yes. I heard many times this problem. I think that we are in the new - now, baseball has a new landscape. When we are talking about the professionals, the top players, we have to think that now, in 2016, the professional [game] is not only in MLB. If you look at the players in MLB, they are coming from other countries. If you look worldwide, baseball is really developed, especially in Asia. If you think and you put together the professional organisations from Japan, NBP, from Korea, KBO, CPBL - altogether in Asia really represent a big, big quantity of the professionals in the world. So we need to move on from the mentality that all professionals means only MLB. Of course, MLB is the biggest professional organisation but I think that now we just achieved an agreement with 80 per cent of the professionals. As for the discussion of whether the MLB will go in a positive way, I am confident that we will have MLB players in Tokyo 2020.
Now we have achieved something that was unexpected. The NBP, I thank them for their cooperation with us. They will suspend their season not only for the baseball period. but for all the Olympic Games. So this means everyone, all the professionals, are looking to the Olympics to be a big stage for developing baseball worldwide.
Is it an issue that becomes more significant, perhaps, in future Games that are not taking place in a baseball heartland?
RF: If you look at the tournaments, another big change from the past to now is that in the past, when I was elected, the international federation was running only two world competitions - the senior, and under-18. Now we have under-12, under-15, under-18, under-23, senior competitions. For two reasons: one, to engage the youth. I think we are more or less the only sport with a world cup for under-12s. And secondly, for the seniors, to include the professionals in our competitions.
We have two senior competitions: the [World Baseball] Classic, which is sanctioned by us, where all the professional players are going, and the Premier 12. The Premier 12, which we played in November, was really successful. It was the most televised event of the year in Asia; it produced more than 2,400 hours of TV and 90.7 million viewers. So I think that the quality of our competitors has improved with the professionals, and even our competitions without professional players.
What is the path for softball to make sure it has adequate visibility now in this process? There has been a lot of talk about baseball - Riccardo has been very popular with the American media at the IOC Session, who wanted to find out about the future of baseball at the Olympics - but what is softball’s role and how do you make sure that it gets the exposure that it is due?
BCL: Well, I think that the last games that we had at the Tokyo Dome - over 31,000 - I think that demonstrates that softball does have the appeal. Its just a question now of rebranding and giving ourselves a much higher profile. Its just that in the past we have been quite comfortable doing certain things, but now you know our status is a bit different and now with Agenda 2020, definitely the youth appeal for our sports has grown tremendously. You couldn’t ask for a better venue in Tokyo but I mean, every city has got stadia and everybody is playing. I think that will help us to rebrand ourselves and as I said, the USA-Japan invitational series that we had, that just demonstrated that we do have the appeal, it’s just a question of working on it to make sure that we have a far bigger reach than before.
Its not just a concentration on, say for example, your competitions and matches. Our competitions and tournaments are going to be over on the Americas side, but if you look at Asia, much like baseball, what we have also learned from them is that as well as looking at professional baseball leagues and competitions in the US, the Asian market is huge. The European market is something that we have not tapped totally, and of course we have got very strong teams coming from Oceania. So we have to look very closely at how we are going to rebrand that and take advantage of the status that we have at the moment.
RF: I think that what Beng said is true because the fact that softball for the first time was played in the [Tokyo] Dome, in the cathedral of baseball, after the success of the Premier 12, driving a lot of attention to softball. It was unbelievable to find all this attendance. This means that if we work together, we can promote both sports in the best way.
BCL: I think that there are very good demonstration of the other part of Agenda 2020, which is gender equality. I would dare to venture to say that I don’t think many of the other sports are strong in both men and women. I think that we are one of those international federations in sport with two very strong men’s and women’s disciplines, and I think it also demonstrates very clearly the IOC’s move and policy, working with the UN, where both men and women working together is going to get a much stronger organisation and a stronger sport, for both the men and the women.
RF: Sometimes this gender equality is forced. In our sport, it is natural; it is just coming from the base, I think.
"We are one of those international federations in sport with two very strong men’s and women’s disciplines."
What’s on the schedule for you now here in Rio? You’re going to be incorporated into the observer programme, travelling to venues and the IBC and so on.
RF: Don’t forget that, different to the other four sports that were added, we were in the Olympic Games until Beijing, so maybe we know how to manage. But we’re going to check, we’re going to take part in this observer programme. I think that the next step for us is to identify how to qualify the teams for the Olympics. This will be really huge, because in baseball we have only six teams and we have to take care. You know, just in the Americas - if you consider Canada, USA, Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba - we have to find two of them. I think it will be very tough but we have an executive meeting in September in Mexico, so we’ll start to analyse, to decide the best way to have the best teams, but also try to have the representation of the continents in the Olympics.
BCL: That will definitely be a huge challenge for us, with just six teams. We would like to have further discussions with the IOC sports department because on the one hand, you would like to have the best teams, but also you would like to have representation globally. This is going to be a huge challenge with six teams. If it was our preference, it would have been eight teams, but we need to have further discussions to see what’s the best formula to ensure that we have the best Games. For us, our performance in Tokyo 2020 is going to be very important beyond.
Baseball and softball last featured in the Olympics at Beijing 2008.
So despite the result yesterday, the format and the execution at Tokyo 2020 isn’t quite settled for you yet?
RF: No because the format depends on the number. The first proposition that we present to Tokyo 2020 was eight teams, two groups of four. Three games for the round robin, then semi-finals and final, so very compact to allow for professionals to take part. And of course, with six teams it will be very hard to have two groups of three. Its really unfair because, first of all, we don’t give to the teams the same regular schedule. So we have to think how to have one group of six and we are working on how to have the best format. But, I repeat, with six teams its hard to have two groups. Maybe we’ll go in the direction of having only one group, so its not clear how we will qualify the teams.
How soon will you start thinking about 2024 and will you be having any discussions with any of the bid teams over the next year?
RF: Before we have discussions with the bid cities, we have to show that in Tokyo you are able to add some value to the Olympic programme. Our goal now is to demonstrate in Tokyo the power of our sport - baseball and softball - to have the best Games possible. After that, I think it is easier to go with something in hand and say, ‘listen, we have this, in terms of attendance, in terms of TV, and this is our credentials for discussions with the bid city’. That is the main goal now, to have the best Games possible in Tokyo. After that, we can start the discussions with the bid cities.
BCL: It also depends on the process the IOC will have to come up with because I understand they are reviewing the process as well. It really depends on what they’re process is going to be like and what the terms and conditions are going to be. Of course, we are having preliminary discussions, we are touching base with all the bid cities, but this is something that we need to work on because it really depends on the process.