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The World Baseball Classic: Desert Versus Excitement

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How do we balance rewarding the best teams and making the WBC exciting for fans?

Koji Watanabe

I honestly don't care a lot about the World Baseball Classic. Based on the sentiments I've seen expressed on Twitter and elsewhere, I'm not alone.

On the one hand, it's not only baseball, but baseball that means something. No, it might not mean much to some people, but it is a competition, unlike Spring Training, and there are many who take it very seriously -- also unlike Spring Training.

On the other hand, it's difficult to care deeply about the USA (or any other team) because the players that we, as fans, root for every single day come from many different countries. We have more emotionally invested in our own MLB teams than in the country from which the players originate. And I'm okay with that.

Nevertheless, the World Baseball Classic should be more exciting and draw more interest than it does. Dave Cameron of FanGraphs brings up an excellent point about why the WBC isn't more successful: the format. The fact of the matter is, pool play and multiple game elimination is just not particularly intriguing, especially when we already don't have much of a rooting interest in the competition. Dave explains:

It just doesn’t need to take 38 games to eliminate 14 teams and leave us with a single game championship. It’s overkill, and it reduces the importance of each individual game. Yes, it increases the chance that the best teams will advance from each round, but I’m not even sure that’s actually in the sport’s best interests. The best moments in NCAA tournament history are the little guys storming the court after knocking off a top seed, and the fact that each game is a win-or-go-home affair adds a level of tension to each game that is essentially unmatched in any other sport.

The natural conclusion that Dave reaches is that the WBC should have a single-elimination format. The core reasoning behind this argument is that the purpose of the WBC is not to reward the best teams, but to draw more fans to baseball and increase the baseball brand, if you will.

It's not a bad idea, and I certainly wouldn't be opposed to making the WBC more exciting. But Dave's article reintroduces a familiar dilemma: do we want more desert -- that is, reward the most talented teams -- or more excitement, which may be better for baseball as a whole? It's a dilemma that is at the forefront in the new Wild Card format, as well as in arguments for a salary cap.

There's something to be said for rewarding the teams that have the most talent and "deserve" to win. On the other hand, that's a slippery slope, because if all we cared about was pure talent, there wouldn't be much point in actually watching the game. The great thing about baseball, and most sports in general, is that the worse team can always win. It's not "fair," and that's alright. We sacrifice fairness for thrill and excitement when we watch sports.

We just don't want to sacrifice all fairness. For the WBC, maybe no one actually cares if the best team wins. But what if people do care? We can't eliminate all semblances of desert just for the sake of excitement. There must be a balance between creating interest for fans of the underdogs and alienizing fans of the favorites.

So I leave it up to you, dear readers.

Discussion Questions:

  • Should the WBC change to a single-elimination format? Why or why not?
  • What's more important in baseball: desert or excitement? How do we create a balance between the two?
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