- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 26, 2009

Put a flag on it and it means something. With Japan‘s victory over South Korea on Monday, the World Baseball Classic established itself as one of the more compelling events in the sports landscape, surprising many fans with its level of intensity and quality of competition.

While the second iteration of the global tournament still has flaws and only lukewarm support in some baseball circles, it proved it’s a viable event with some genuine drama.

There was the Netherlands’ upset of the Dominican Republic. There was the United States’ walk-off victory over Puerto Rico that led to a raucous midfield celebration. And there was a Ichiro Suzuki hitting a two-run single in the 10th inning to lead Japan to victory before more than 54,000 fans at Dodger Stadium.

“The buzz meter and the intensity of the feeling in the park in the final game when Japan beat Korea is something that this observer has only felt at ground level at an Alabama-Auburn game, a [North] Carolina-Duke game at Cameron [Indoor Stadium] or at a Yankees-Red Sox LCS,” said Len DeLuca, senior vice president of ESPN, which broadcast most of the event. “That feeling is special.”

ESPN’s ratings grew by 8 percent over the 2006 WBC, with an average of 1.6 million viewers for its nine telecasts. The semifinal game between the United States and Japan drew a 2.2 rating to become the most-watched WBC game ever, an indication that viewership was partially driven by the success of the American team. The Japan-Korea final drew a 1.4 rating, an 8 percent increase over 2006.

These are hardly last-episode-of-”M*A*S*H” type ratings, but they’re solid for this time of year, when sports fans are hit with a horde of college basketball games. And they are slightly better than what ESPN draws for many of its regular-season baseball broadcasts.

The World Baseball Classic is anything from perfect. For starters, the event forces players to go all-out at a time when they traditionally have tried to ease into the baseball season. Some top players, including Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard and Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, declined invitations this season, leaving fans to wonder how emotionally invested American players are. And then there’s the format; rather than play a traditional round robin, teams play in small double elimination tournaments that often feature games with little at stake but seeding.

It’s unclear whether ESPN will have the rights to show the World Baseball Classic in 2013. But DeLuca said there likely will be talks with baseball officials about tweaking the format or finding a way to condense the tournament into fewer days. And he said the league must continue to talk with team general managers who worry about the health of their players.

“The most important change is to get the general managers of major league baseball clubs to buy in to this event,” DeLuca said. “It’s the hardest thing and a natural hurdle. The general managers are paid to win in October, not March.”

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