EVEN AS it thrived abroad, the World Baseball Classic remained an afterthought in the U.S. Heading into last weekend's semifinals, ESPN's viewership for the three-week tournament was up 30% from 2006, but the 1.3 rating was well below the 2.0 average for last year's MLB Sunday-night games. The U.S.'s loss to Japan in the semis did pull a 2.1, but the WBC's appeal was far more apparent in other nations. A first-round game between Japan and Korea earned a 37.8 rating (about 45 million viewers) in Japan, the highest for a sporting event there since the Japanese played Cuba in the 2006 WBC final (43.4). Japan's Round 2 game against the Cubans this year drew a 17.9 rating even though the game started there at 4:45 a.m. on a Monday.
On Canada's Rogers Sportsnet, ratings rose 77% from 2006, to 1.6, despite Team Canada's once again failing to get past the first round. Toronto's Rogers Centre, a first-round site, set a record for single-day merchandise sales for a non--World Series game there. The best-selling apparel at concession stands across six venues (the three in the U.S., Toronto's, Mexico City's and San Juan's; apparel sales from the Tokyo site were not available) bore team logos of Venezuela, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Japan. The top-selling jersey was Ichiro Suzuki's.
Even as Team USA's dramatic second-round, 6--5 comeback win over Puerto Rico unfolded before just 13,224 fans at Dolphins Stadium (nearly 3,500 fewer than the Marlins' average attendance in '08), more than 15,000 fans went to Petco Park in San Diego to watch a Japan--Korea game. And 43,378 fans turned out to Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to see the Koreans beat Venezuela 10--2 in a semifinal. MLB commissioner Bud Selig called the attendance numbers for one Team USA game "disappointing," and players have generally felt a lack of support. "It definitely hurts a little bit to know that you're always the away team in your own country," first baseman Kevin Youkilis of the Red Sox and Team USA told the Boston Herald.
Still, MLB's goal for the tournament "is to grow the sport around the world," and a 50% increase in WBC revenue helps. A pool of $15 million was divvied among the baseball federations of the 16 participating countries. To try to boost earnings further, MLB will aim at an under-tapped market for 2013: home.