The Spring Classic?
The inaugural effort of the World Baseball Classic has been a somewhat uneven affair, but even the less popular teams are helping the sports' economics.
LAKE BUENA VISTA, FL (CNNMoney.com) - If the World Baseball Classic could bottle the fan enthusiasm for the Dominican Republic-Venezuela game this past Tuesday, no one would ever be able to question the sport's popularity or international credentials ever again.
Fans from the two countries were lining up to get into the game five hours before the first pitch. Soon after the gates opened, the stands were filled with fans wearing far more licensed team apparel than a typical MLB crowd, and literally wrapped in their country flags.
They were soon singing and chanting encouragement to the many major league all stars who were on the two teams' rosters -- during batting practice. They actually turned it up a notch once the game began, making the typically raucous fans at a Yankee-Red Sox game look like a golf crowd.
The game drew almost a million households on ESPN, even though it was a mid-week afternoon game and the end overlapped with the U.S-Mexico game on ESPN 2. That game drew 1.27 million viewers, while a Canada's upset of the United States the next afternoon was watched in 1.32 million homes, making it ESPN 2's best rating of the year.
Those aren't exactly Super Bowl numbers, but they are more than healthy for an inaugural event being shown mostly outside of prime time. The tournament appears well on its way to making some money in its first year, according to Major League Baseball officials, when breaking even would have been considered a success. (For a look at SI.com's coverage of the World Baseball Classic, click here.)
Of course that night when Italy and Australia faced off in the same stadium, the level of excitement was more than a little different.
The crowd was as sparse as was the major league talent on the field, even though the Italian team was helped by the presence of many Italian-American stars, some of whom spoke only English and had never been to the country for which they were playing.
By the top of the seventh inning, just before the game was called in favor of Italy due to the 10-run "mercy rule," you could hear one fan shout out, "Come on, hit me a foul ball so I can go home!"
Still in some ways the presence of teams like Italy, Australia, China and South Africa in this first ever world tournament may end up being as or more important than the excitement of the Latin American fans.
Baseball started the WBC as a way to raise baseball's profile both at home and abroad, but especially overseas. With baseball recently getting the boot from the Olympics, it needed to create a platform that could showcase its players from around the world and build fan interest in different markets.
The sport is already as big as it can be in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and those market are relatively small, and in the case of the Dominican Republic, very poor.
But many of those involved in the WBC make the convincing case that the tournament can help baseball gain a toe hold that has been lacking in some of other more lucrative markets.
"To the fans in Australia, it's exciting. It's their guys competing against the best in the world while wearing the green and gold," said Dave Nillson, a former major league All Star catcher and the current designated hitter for the Australian team. "Nothing that happens out of this can set us back."
Nillson knows better than anyone the struggles faced by baseball in Australia. He bought the entire Australian league in 1999. He also passed on playing in the majors in 2000, the year after his best season, so he could play for the Australian Olympic baseball team, which he did again in 2004, when the team won a silver medal.
But the Australian league has since gone out of business, and the Australian team has had the worst struggles so far in the WBC, getting only two hits in its first two games, even though more than 100 Australians play professional baseball in the United States.
Still Nillson and other baseball officials from down under say that participating in the tournament could be a big lift to efforts to restart the league.
"Until we get a league up and running, we can't expect to be in the media at home," said Don Knapp, CEO of the Australian baseball federation. "We need that to get a toe hold. We win just by being here, and if we take away any money, that's a huge help." The federation has an annual budget of only $3 million.
The same is the case in Italy, which has a league of baseball teams that is just barely hanging on today.
"Right now 70 percent of the money comes from our sponsors," said Riccardo Fraccari, president of the Italian Baseball Federation. "With the decision to take baseball out of the Olympics, it means many of the sponsors will probably quit." He said the presence of Italy and the Netherlands in the tournament is crucial to convincing Europeans sports fans and sponsors that baseball is a truly international sport.
Baseball may never catch basketball in global reach, but it could follow the path the National Basketball Association has to greater popularity and revenue in a variety of markets where it is an after-thought now.
That would mean not only a larger market for broadcasts and merchandise sales, but fertile markets to develop the next generation of stars.
When the NBA "Dream Team" took the court in the 1992 Olympics, it was tough to imagine that 14 years later some of the league's top players would be from Germany, Argentina or China. Giving the NBA's top players an international platform in which to compete was a factor in that globalization.
Judy Heeter, director of business affairs and licensing for the Major League Baseball Players Association, said that the international arena is a key to growing the game's popularity and revenue, which is why the union joined with its normal adversaries in the MLB to establish the tournament.
"Growing the game is something we all agree on," she said.
While she can't predict the impact that the tournament will have on growth of the game, she said that early fan reaction has exceeded all expectations.
"When fans see the game played as passionately as we saw it played this afternoon, it casts the game in a very exciting light for both the audience that knows the game and a whole bunch of new ones," she said.
For a look at the NBA's full court press in China, click here
For a look at baseball business reach into Japan, click here
For more on the business of sports, click here.