It seems that 200 MLB players will be participating in the World Baseball Classic this March. For those of you who do not know, the WBC is a global baseball tournament held every 3 years in March–this March will be the third such tournament. You may expect the Americans to dominate on the global stage, as baseball is the “American Pastime”, but you would be wrong. Japan has won both of the two World Baseball Classics so far, the U.S. has never even made it to the finals (and only made it to the semi-finals once).
There are a number of reasons for the lack of dominance by the U.S. For one, lots of the best MLB players come from Latin America (the Dominican Republic specifically), so the MLB talent does not favor the U.S. as much as it may have in the past (when baseball was dominated by white Americans). This map from 2011 is a pretty recent visualization of how baseball has become more global in recent years, if we had an updated map for 2013 you would expect to see even more international players.
There is also the argument that “Team America does not take the WBC seriously”. Many players from MLB rosters are barred from playing in the WBC by their team (older guys, pitchers, players coming off injury traditionally do not play in the WBC). This affects the rosters for all the clubs, but disproportionately the American team as it has the vast majority of MLB players. Also, the WBC runs parallel to spring training in America; many MLB players are just getting into playing shape and use the WBC as an opportunity to shake the rust off, as opposed to some international players whose seasons may be in “full swing” (no pun intended).
There is also the argument that MLB players will not help you win this competition. Japan, the only team to win the WBC, has never had many MLB players on their roster. This year, Japan will look to defend its WBC title with zero MLB players, that should be fun to watch. With MLB players just getting warmed up, other teams have a much better chance at competing in the WBC then one may expect.
Sports can be a powerful development tool for undeveloped countries.Professional sports bring to the table billion dollar profit margins that can go an even longer way in a poor developing country than they could in the U.S. These programs are a true win-win for professional sports leagues and developing nations. The professional sports leagues can expand their markets to new regions, and the process of discovering talented new players is essential for the future profitability of any sport.
The benefits to the developing country are not what one may think. It is natural to think of the sport star who signed a big contract giving back to his home country, and for this most part this does happen. However, these benefits are small compared to the more “organic” process of economic development. By linking sports programs to educational and nutritional programs, even those who do not go on to become professional sports stars will be helped in achieving their potential. The social capital and camaraderie learned in sports is a more abstract advantage than schooling and nutritional guidance (human capital), but are nonetheless important skills for young people to learn.
Participating in these sports development programs are not only fun for kids, but they teach them valuable life skills. Instead of selling drugs, joining militias, or working as poor child laborers, these children learn marketable skills and are given the opportunity to realize their full potential (something we in the developed world often take for granted). The next great MLB player could come from one of these programs, but so could the next Nobel Prize Laureate. The benefits from these “investments” will take time to pay dividends, but the return on these investments could be absurdly large for both professional sports leagues and developing countries. These programs are a true example of a win-win relationship, and there is a strong argument for “scaling-up” these programs.
Baseballs development initiatives tend to be in Latin America and Asia, where baseball is popular. Comparable programs exist for other major sports as well. Any NBA fan could tell you about “NBA Cares“, where star players help out in poorer communities around the U.S.. Less well known is the SEEDS program, which supports similar programs in developing countries (currently operations are based in Senegal, but the organization has an ambitious goal to expand to other countries in the future).
Certain sports naturally fit better in different countries. Asia and Latin America have a history of baseball. Also due to the fact that these regions are generally more developed than Sub-Saharan Africa, the cost of playing baseball is a bit more achievable (and is subsidized in certain cases by MLB). In Africa, basketball and soccer are more popular, as all you need to play these sports is a ball and an arena. Different sports for different folks, but they all have the same potential for spurring economic development and raising the standard of living.
Baseball seems to be making inroads in the African market as well. Uganda became the first African team to play in and win a Little League World Series game last year after missionaries brought baseball to Uganda in the 1990s. Some of the best athletes in the world are born in Africa, I would not be surprised to see MLB take further steps in promoting it’s sport in Africa in the coming years / decades. South America is another potential untapped growth region for MLB to consider.
So while you’re enjoying the WBC, or the Olympics or World Cup in the future, know that you are not only enjoying sports, that you are not only displaying national pride, but that you are also (indirectly) advocating the use of sports as a poverty reduction tool. All that socially constructive behavior by sitting on your couch at home, not too shabby!!