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The Big Pitch

The World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) will this month stage the inaugural edition of its Premier12 tournament. Andy Fry reports.

Between November 8 and 21, the world’s 12 leading men’s baseball-playing nations will take part in the first-ever Premier12 event.

A joint venture between the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) and Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB), the event promises to be a fascinating addition to the baseball calendar.

If it goes well, the two organising bodies hope it will help persuade the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to re-admit baseball and softball to the summer Olympics from 2020.

The inaugural WBSC Premier12 is being co-hosted by Japan and Taiwan and will then be held every four years thereafter. According to WBSC president Riccardo Fraccari, it will be “the top international baseball event of the year, offering the biggest purse and highest award of world ranking points”.

Even before the first Premier12 ball has been pitched, he says the use of world rankings as the method for qualification is having an impact on the annual baseball calendar.

“It has raised the value of all officially-sanctioned international competitions in which points are generated (this includes junior events ranging from U12 upwards – which means national federations [NF] are rewarded for their work at every level). All NFs are included in this process and can potentially qualify for the Premier12.”

Fraccari is confident that the Premier12 will help consolidate the appeal of baseball in its core markets (North Asia and the Americas), while also providing a platform for further growth internationally.

He calls the new event “a vehicle for baseball’s global stakeholders to unite and map out an international calendar and strategy for development that is in the best interests of our sport – at the national level as well as globally.”

Why Now?

If there’s one key question to be asked, it is why baseball needs the Premier 12 when it already has World Baseball Classic, a 16-team WBSC-endorsed quadrennial event involving the world’s best baseball nations that was last held in 2013 and is due to return in 2017. Fraccari gave a couple of reasons. Firstly, he said, “it is in response to requests by NFs to play at the highest level more than once every four years”.

Secondly, he adds, there is a distinction between the events – which goes back to the issue of world ranking points.

“The World Baseball Classic crowns the top men’s national team as world champions,” he said. “However the Premier 12 will recognise and reward the best overall national team programme – from Under 12 to professional – over the four-year cycle.”

In terms of baseball politics, the biggest difference between the two events is that the WBC is a Major League Baseball-backed event featuring MLB players, whereas the Premier 12 doesn’t involve any MLB players.

Inevitably, this will place more emphasis on players plying their trade within Asia. Which explains why the NPB, which claims to be the second highest-attended major sports league in the world (with nearly 23 million fans in 2014), is keen to be involved.

 

Olympic Showcase

Not to be overlooked either is the fact that the 2020 Olympics will also be held in Tokyo.

If the Premier 12 can find its mojo this winter, then it will certainly strengthen the WBSC’s hand when it takes its case to the IOC for inclusion in the Olympic Programme. Should it prove successful, Fraccari said: “The Premier12 will then gain in importance and prestige over the long-term, as it would serve as an Olympic qualifier.”

A good indication of the seriousness with which the WBSC views the Premier 12 was its decision to bring in design agency The Works to manage the brand design and artwork rollout for the event. The Works, which has developed the official look for some of the world’s biggest sports properties, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup, UEFA Champions League Finals and the 2014 FIVB Men’s & Women’s World Championships, will also be responsible for creating the look and feel of all fan zones.

For now the goal has got to be to get baseball and softball back into the Olympics

Even more significantly, the WBSC has brought in sports rights agency MP & Silva, which will be the Premier 12’s media and sponsorship rights partner across 2015 and 2019. MPS is already familiar with the job, having distributed the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Commenting on the appeal of the new event, MPS CEO Marco Auletta said: “WBSC sanctioned international baseball competitions, such as the Premier 12, continue to gain in prestige and attractiveness to broadcasters, commercial partners and spectators. We foresee an accelerating trend of audience growth and commercialisation of baseball content in traditional markets across the Americas and Asia, as well as emerging markets, such as Europe and the Middle East.”

Picking up the story, MP & Silva vice-president business affairs and sponsorship Rene Valencia says the event will have a lot of high-profile TV coverage, especially in core baseball markets. Broadcasters to have signed up to air the event include TBS and TV Asahi in Japan, Videoland in Taiwain and SBS in South Korea “and that has been part of the appeal to sponsors. One of the things that appealed to our agency is that Asia is a stronghold for baseball and I think brands have also been attracted to that fact.”

Sponsors are also attracted to the fact that “this is a first,” said Valencia. “It’s one of the WBSC’s first major moves since it rebranded from being the IBAF and brands are excited to get involved.”

High-profile partners include Hublot, Nissan, Asahi Beer, Meiji Holdings, Gung Ho Entertainment and Yomiuri news service, which will get the usual array of broadcast and event exposure, as well as specific forms of activation such as MVP and Play of the Day Awards. “We are also finalising another three deals which we can’t disclose yet,” added Valencia.

Valencia has no doubt that the event will generate a lot of interest in Asia “if the 2014 Asian Games are anything to go by”. But he says MPS is not trying to squeeze too much commercial value out of the event at this stage: “This is about growing the sport. We’re working with the WBSC across the year to build interest in all aspects of the sport. For now the goal has got to be to get baseball and softball back into the Olympics because that will really make a difference.”

Fraccari agrees, and believes the 2020 Olympics will be a better event if it brings baseball and softball back into the fold: “I believe Japan’s passion for baseball and softball, if included at the Tokyo Games, will unite and engage the entire Olympic host nation behind the Games and the Olympic ideals of sport in society – as well as honour Japan’s sporting heritage.”

 

So significant is the WBSC’s Olympic agenda that Fraccari is not yet getting too wrapped up with the issue of where the 2019 Premier 12 will be held. But he is convinced that the franchise has a central role to play going forward. “This (event) is giving rise to a golden era of global growth amongst fans, sponsors, broadcasters and especially among young people and women interested in playing and following baseball and softball, particularly in new markets in Europe, the Middle East, as well as in South America and Africa, and in Asia,” he concluded.

Global Footprint

The 12 nations taking part are Japan, USA, Cuba, Chinese Taipei (Taiwan), Netherlands, Dominican Republic, Canada, South Korea, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Italy and Mexico. Split into two pools, they will play all opening round and quarter-final ties in the Taiwanese cities of Taipei and Taichung – bar one.

The one missing fixture is a tasty-looking curtain-raiser between South Korea and Japan that will take place at the 40,000- seat Sapporo Dome in Tokyo. After the quarter-final phase, the action will then head to Japan for the semi-finals and final, staged at the 55,000-seater Tokyo Dome stadium.

Explaining why the rights were assigned to Japan and Taiwan, WBSC president, Riccardo Fraccari, told SportBusiness International: “Bringing baseball’s best-ranked nations to the inaugural WBSC Premier12 in Asia will, I hope, serve to raise awareness and promote the true power of baseball around the world – which is crucial to sending a strong signal to the international community that our sport is one of the leading and most attractive team sports in the world.

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