The next three years are set to represent a crucial chapter in the histories of baseball and softball. For the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC), the global governing body formed in 2013 to spearhead the reinstatement of both sports to the Olympic programme, there is much at stake in the run-up to Tokyo 2020.
Having been unceremoniously dropped after Beijing 2008, baseball and softball were among six sports added to the Games programme in August of last year, joining karate, skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing. As they prepare for their long-awaited return, officials in both disciplines must now prove they are worthy of a spot in future editions of sport’s blue-riband event.
That task is far from straightforward. If the inclusion of baseball and softball at Tokyo 2020 was widely expected given the popularity of both sports in Japan, their long-term Olympic future remains uncertain. As it stands, the stars of Major League Baseball (MLB), the sport’s preeminent league, are not permitted to compete at the Games, while the WBSC’s leadership and Tokyo 2020 organisers continue to disagree over the competition format proposed for baseball at the event.
Still, the WBSC has continued its work unperturbed, raising its game at a time when the competition for attention has perhaps never been greater. In concert with its lengthy push for Olympic reinstatement, the body has refocused its efforts to develop its own national team competitions, including the Premier12, the all-new tournament for the world’s 12 best senior national teams, and a raft of revamped age-group tournaments across both sports under its auspices.
In particular, the creation of the Premier12 has proved a boon for the WBSC. Buoyed by the promising operational and financial success of the inaugural edition, staged across Japan and Taiwan in 2015, this month the Lausanne-based confederation awarded hosting rights for the 2019 event to Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) league.
It was undoubtedly a decision made with sights set firmly on Tokyo 2020, one that ensured the world’s best national teams would compete once again on Japanese soil ahead of the Games whilst offering a direct route for qualification and another chance to demonstrate the baseball-mad country’s appetite for a game whose leaders are intent on showcasing its global appeal at every opportunity.
As this week’s IOC Session gets underway in the Peruvian capital of Lima, the onus remains on those same leaders to resolve any formatting issues with Tokyo 2020 organisers and, perhaps most importantly, to convince MLB of the merits of participating at Tokyo 2020. Only then can baseball and softball begin to think about the process of securing a place in Paris in 2024, and in Los Angeles four years later.
Ahead of the event, SportsPro caught up with WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari for a quick update on his organisation's quest for long-term Olympic status.
SportsPro: What factors spurred the decision to award the 2019 edition of the Premier12 tournament to Japan’s NPB?
Riccardo Fraccari: Our long-lasting relationship with NPB has certainly played a role in this decision, as well the success of the previous edition, not to mention the strong connection with the upcoming return of WBSC at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. Furthermore, we will have the chance to test the facility [in Yokohama] for the Games.
What kind of commercial impact do you expect the 2019 Premier12 tournament to have on the WBSC?
The 2015 edition already exceeded our expectations with more than US$130 million in brand exposure generated for WBSC and our partners. For 2019, we are hoping to see further growth given baseball’s growing global and national team appeal and, most importantly, that the 2019 edition will also serve as the Olympic qualifier for Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
How does the WBSC plan to leverage that tournament for Tokyo 2020 and to ensure baseball stays on the Olympic programme in 2024?
The upcoming IOC Session in Lima will give us some inputs. I think that WBSC meets all the Olympic standards, such as youth focus and appeal, gender balance, grassroots development efforts, and global representation. Our goal is to be as strong a partner as possible to the Olympic Movement.
What is your case for long-term Olympic status? Do you think the awarding of the 2024 Games to Paris as opposed to Los Angeles helps your cause?
Both cities can stage a successful baseball and softball Olympic tournament. Should the Games of 2024 be awarded to Paris, we will have the great opportunity to ‘attack’ with a powerful product a key and fairly new market like Europe.
On the other hand, should LA be granted the 2024 Games we would be playing ‘at home’, being a sport deeply embedded across the Americas. They’re both win-win situations for baseball/softball and the Olympic movement.
You’ve previously expressed confidence that MLB players will be at Tokyo 2020. How are talks developing on that front, what are the key sticking points at present, and are you still confident MLB players will be able to compete at the Games?
Professional players from all around the world will be in Tokyo, and the level of the tournament will be the highest possible with six national teams. With regard to MLB’s level of commitment to the Games, all the leagues, including MLB, are behind Olympic baseball and want to deliver an event in 2020 that reflects how big our sport is.
For details on precise player availability, we need to finalise the practical talks about the format and competition schedule, and work out the qualifiers.
Our goal is to be as strong a partner as possible to the Olympic Movement.
Is the inclusion of MLB players at Tokyo 2020 critical to ensuring baseball’s long-term Olympic status?
The success of the business model of Olympic baseball will be key, and whether baseball/softball delivers more to the Olympic Games than it receives. I am confident we will do this. And this will help produce sustainable Games and help the Games be attractive to future potential hosts.
This year’s World Baseball Classic is likely to be the best-attended of any world championships in 2017. Generally speaking, how would you assess the development of international baseball in recent years?
For our sport to have the number one international event of the year is a major milestone, particularly with the high number of sports and federations running these types of world events. This is a clear sign that baseball fans are eager to root for their national teams playing at the highest level. The World Baseball Classic, as well as the Premier12 and the Baseball World Cups, will further assist our sport and help grow our product and market share worldwide.
As the push for long-term Olympic inclusion continues, in what ways are your various stakeholders - broadcasters, sponsors, fans and athletes - working to grow the sports of baseball and softball worldwide?
Through the years we have grown a strong relationship with our stakeholders, particularly broadcasters and sponsors. Our aim is obviously to highlight the qualities baseball and softball can offer, and the choice of our partners follow the same concept. They are doing a great job delivering and distributing worldwide high-quality products, with the crucial passionate contribution of our athletes and our amazing fans.