How World Baseball Classic grows baseball around the world

March 7th, 2023

There's only one stage on which Mike Trout can face Shohei Ohtani with national pride on the line and baseball fans all across the world watching, from the U.S. to Japan and beyond. It's the World Baseball Classic.

Not even the World Series can conjure such a moment. The possibility only exists in the WBC, when baseball's biggest stars transcend their MLB club logos to play for 20 different teams in a true showcase of international talent.

The World Baseball Classic creates a unique baseball experience, and that's why it's one of Major League Baseball's most important global events.

"What it does for MLB is stamp baseball as a global brand and global sport," said Jim Small, MLB's senior VP of international and World Baseball Classic president. "The WBC has been a great way to advance the game because it's a World Cup competition. And we just didn't have that before the World Baseball Classic."

Small was part of the team that wrote the original business plan for the World Baseball Classic, years before the inaugural tournament launched the WBC on its path to what it is today.

The Classic has been building to this point for four previous tournaments. The expansion of MLB's global reach goes hand in hand with the expansion of the World Baseball Classic, from 2006 to 2009 to 2013 to 2017 to 2023.

"We're 17 years into this, right?" Small said. "Pete Alonso and Shohei Ohtani were 11 years old when we did the first World Baseball Classic. So they've grown up with this. 

"For those of us that were around for the first one, when everything was new, there was a lot of skepticism. We now have a generation that has grown up with this tournament. The WBC is an established brand, an established tournament, that the big-name players have grown up watching and saying 'Gosh, it would be really cool to play in that someday.' Well, now they can." 

There are more international superstars in MLB than ever before, and now there's more star power in the World Baseball Classic than ever before, too -- starting with the top-to-bottom MLB All-Star team built by the reigning champion USA. 

That team started with Trout. He was the first player Team USA general manager Tony Reagins, who's also MLB's chief baseball development officer, called. Trout's memories of watching the 2017 gold medal run, with iconic moments like Adam Jones' home run robbery of Manny Machado in the USA's win over the Dominican Republic, inspired him to play in 2023.

"You can just see [how the WBC is different], watching it on TV," Trout said. "When they were out there making those plays and winning, I think that's what I regretted. I should have been out there."

With Trout named captain, a cascade of MLB's top players followed, under the Team USA slogan: All In.

"I think that's where we turned the corner in this tournament. The high-profile, superstar player is embracing it," Reagins said. "That bodes well for the tournament and for baseball domestically and internationally."

The World Baseball Classic of today is loaded, from the previous champions -- the U.S., Japan and Dominican Republic -- to Korea, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, the Netherlands, Mexico and Cuba. Even Israel and Italy have prominent Major Leaguers.

"That will be the focus of our business folks, highlighting the players that are participating -- not just on Team USA, but on all the clubs represented in the tournament," Reagins said. "Being able to showcase these talented players around the world is something we felt was important. The promotion of all the teams."

There have always been great players in the WBC -- the 2006 U.S. team included names like Ken Griffey Jr., Derek Jeter, Chipper Jones, Alex Rodriguez and Chase Utley -- but the depth and balance of the stars throughout the tournament today is the difference.

Rosters from every part of the world are studded with current, former and future Major League stars, and when MLB's stars are spread across so many different countries, the fans follow.

Those fans see their favorite MLB players alongside elite international stars from the world's top leagues: Japan's NPB, Korea's KBO and others from Asia, Europe and Latin America.

"Talking to Shohei about [Japan], he tried to tell me he doesn't think he's the best player on the team," Trout said in disbelief. "There's no way that there's somebody better than Shohei."

But that's the thing. Japan doesn't just have Ohtani. They have Munetaka Murakami, the new Sadaharu Oh, who crushed 56 home runs in NPB last season as Aaron Judge was putting on a similar record-setting power display in MLB. They have phenom Roki Sasaki, who authored a 19-strikeout perfect game. They have back-to-back Triple Crown pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto.

The World Baseball Classic can be fans' first look at those players who might soon be starring in MLB. Kodai Senga dominated for Japan against Team USA in the 2017 WBC; now he's on the Mets. Korea's Kiwoom Heroes agreed to post reigning KBO MVP Jung Hoo Lee, who's just 24, after their 2023 season. The 23-year-old Murakami could follow; he's slated to be posted to MLB after 2025.

"A great benefit of the WBC is that it creates more awareness of players outside of the United States," Small said. "It's raised the profiles of these international players and international leagues with U.S.-based fans. That's good for our game -- for MLB and the brand."

But the tournament's scope extends past the powerhouse nations to those in earlier stages of developing baseball.

The 2023 WBC, between its qualifiers and main draw, will have been played in the U.S., Japan, Taiwan, Germany and Panama by the time a champion is crowned. Past hosts have included South Korea, Mexico, Canada, Australia and Puerto Rico.

"Baseball in Germany is in a much better spot now than it was before the WBC," Small said. "We had the qualifiers there, and the Bavarian government spent several million dollars to upgrade that facility. That's lasting. Same thing in Panama; they upgraded the field there."

And there's more impact beyond the host countries. Look at Pakistan, which built a national baseball team out of cricketers to participate in the last two WBC qualifiers. Or the Czech Republic, whose qualifier win to claim a spot in the 2023 tournament was the biggest moment in its baseball history. Or Nicaragua, where baseball is the national sport, and which finally made its first Classic.

"The obvious success of the WBC has been in places like Japan, Korea and the United States. That's what it's known for," Small said. "But what I'm really heartened by is to see what the WBC has done to the minnows instead of the whales."

Minnows and whales -- the WBC creates defining baseball moments for all the countries and territories that play in it.

"I'll never forget Yadier Molina saying [one of the biggest moments] of his career was in the [2017] semifinal game that put [Puerto Rico] into the finals," said USA pitcher and Molina's longtime teammate Adam Wainwright. "That stuck with me."

Wainwright has gotten to see just how much the WBC has evolved. One of the only big leaguers who's been around since the first Classic, he watched his Cardinals teammates leave their mark on different countries over the years: Molina for Puerto Rico, Albert Pujols for the Dominican Republic, even Jason Marquis for Israel. Now he's wearing a Team USA WBC jersey for the first time, alongside superstars Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado, while other Cardinals represent 10 different countries outside the U.S. in WBC '23.

Stars who watched previous Classics are now playing in the tournament. Stars who played in past Classics are now working on growing the tournament: Molina is managing Team Puerto Rico; Nelson Cruz is the GM for the Dominican Republic.

Every World Baseball Classic has built on the last. The 2017 tournament set records for attendance and TV ratings, especially the U.S.-Puerto Rico final. And the 2023 tournament has built toward a big one on the horizon: the 20-year anniversary Classic in 2026.

"We believe we're going to see spectacular baseball this year that will help us sustain our momentum, so the '26 tournament is even bigger," Small said. "More people in the stands. More television engagement. All of that."

MLB has a three-pronged international strategy to create long-term fandom, wherever you are in the world. 1) Create the opportunity for participation in baseball. 2) Deliver the right content, on the right device, at the right time. 3) Put on compelling live events. The World Baseball Classic, similar to MLB events like the London Series, fits into that third pillar.

"We can't take 100,000 folks in London and bring them here to watch a Yankee game. But we brought the New York Yankees to London, and they could see the spectacle of baseball live and in person," Small said. "The WBC gives us a very, very similar opportunity.

"It's that live, visceral opportunity to experience the game, maybe like you've never experienced it before, in Tokyo or Taichung or Phoenix or Miami. That's special, and helps grow our international engagement. It helps Major League Baseball; it also helps NPB, the KBO, the CPBL and other leagues around the world."