The sports industry has been surprisingly puzzling in the past decade or so. During a period of entertainment innovation, you would think that the original creators of live, dramatic content would have had instant access to the secret sauce that makes a game or competition worth watching. But that hasn’t inherently been the case. Football’s Pro Bowl has been nearly unwatchable for years. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world yet can’t seem to get Americans to tune in on a regular basis to watch Major League Soccer. And the WNBA has had a storied struggle in gaining the same following as its male counterpart. Simply having access to watching a game isn’t enough to actually get people to do it.
This made the 2023 World Baseball Classic a particularly interesting moment in sports media. After all, the last time they had the event was in 2017, a practical lifetime ago in the way we consume entertainment. Would an event that was trying to gain attention at the same time as March Madness and NFL Free Agency be able to compete for interest?
It turns out that the past two weeks have been a Masterclass in exactly why sports are so engaging in the first place. The stakes for the World Baseball Classic are very different than they are for Major League Baseball. A player is not going to make life-changing money based on their performance; two weeks is not long enough to really change the perception of an individual’s talent. It seems that the only stakes that matter are pride and love of the game. The truth, though, is these are the only stakes that mattered in the first place.
During an era where college athletes skip College Bowl games in order to preserve their health toward the big contract, it is refreshing to see players invest in a team that plays for the joy of competition and the excitement of representing one’s country. It brings the game back to the most basic roots, and allows for a kind of bonding that brings fans and players together.
In the WBC Final last night, we got to see a matchup that had reporters salivating for months. With the game on the line, down by a run, Mike Trout, possibly the greatest player in the history of the game came to bat against Shohei Ohtani, the most unique player ever. They had never faced each other in an at-bat; after all, they are teammates on the LA Angels. So when this becomes the defining moment for one of the coolest competitions in recent baseball memory, it had the entire baseball community locked in at a time when the alternative is a sleepy Spring Training game featuring players wearing jersey numbers in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
It has been a treat watching the enthusiasm from across the world during this Classic. The environment in Asia during Pool play was electric, showing the global reach of the game. The passion that Latin American teams bring to the bench makes baseball look fun in a way that takes us all back to the moments we fell in love with the sport. As defending champions, the American team has bonded together and been a rare burst of unity for a country that seems to have perfected the process of contentious infighting. Even before the MLB regular season, we are getting to enjoy playoff atmospheres, and see baseball played in the most fun way possible.
This past two weeks have been an epic victory for the perception of baseball across the world. The stage is set for an incredible kickoff the 2023 MLB season. And, perhaps most wonderfully, the bracket-style competition reminds us exactly why we love sports in the first place. Because sometimes we need to care a whole lot about something that means nothing in the grand scheme of things, yet means absolutely everything at the same time.