Behind the ScoreboardMarch 21, 2009
What Will Make the WBC a Real Classic?
By Sky Andrecheck

[Editor's note: Sky Andrecheck is the latest addition to the Baseball Analysts team. He is a statistician for a research company in Washington D.C. Originally from Chicago, Sky, who holds bachelors and masters degrees from the University of Illinois, has been cursed as a Cubs fan. He thinks the 101st year will be the charm.]

In a few days, the World Baseball Classic, the locust of the baseball world, goes back into the ground and allows the real season to begin - until then I'm here to analyze the Classic, how it's fared in its first two incarnations, and what it should look like when it re-emerges in 2013.

I'm not so much here to analyze it from a player or team standpoint, but from the point of view of a fan or commissioner. Certain aspects of the games have been grand successes - the thrilling game in Canada against the US, a packed Tokyo Dome for Japan vs. Korea, and Latin American fans cheering on the home team in Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Others images have been that of failure - half empty houses and blowout games shortened by mercy rule.

It's clear that MLB wants to attract as many eyeballs as possible with this Classic and at times has had trouble doing so, so to diagnose with problems the WBC we'll have to start with a clear-eyed analysis of WBC's attendance or lack thereof.

As of this writing, 75 WBC games have been played. We can start by classifying the games into 5 groups ranging from excellent attendance to simply terrible. This is trickier than it sounds due to the fact that the games were played in widely varying sized stadiums, but the games were roughly categorized into the following groups:


Now having the games classified into groups, we can perform an ordinal logistic regression to analyze what's driving the dramatic differences in attendance. Data from the 3 semifinal and finals games were excluded because they were sold out likely because of this very reason.

What I found was the following:

  • One country being "home" has a dramatic effect on attendance. Not surprisingly, crowds are more likely to come out when they are seeing their own sons on the field. The likelihood of "excellent" attendance (group 1) skyrockets from 2% to 43% and the likelihood of at least good attendance (group 2) goes from 9% to 77%.

  • If one team is "home", the effect is even greater when the country is playing a team that they consider a strong rival (such as Korea @ Japan, US @ Canada, Caribbean country @ Puerto Rico, etc). The chance of excellent attendance goes even higher from 43% to 75%.

  • Barring one team being at "home", attendance was greater if there was a strong presence of foreign nationals in the area (such as Korea vs. Mexico @ LA, or Dominican vs. Puerto Rico @ Florida). This effect was not as strong as the regular home effect, but did lift the chances of excellent attendance from 2% to 14% and the chances of good attendance from 9% to 40%.

  • Bad competition is a drag on attendance. Dividing the groups into 3 talent categories (Group 1: US, PR, VEN, DR, JAP, Group 2: MEX, CUB, KOR, CAN, PAN, Group 3: SA, NED, ITA, CHI, CT, AUS) I found the games between two bottom rung teams or games between a middle-rung team and a bottom-rung team significantly reduced attendance. Interestingly, marquee high talent games between two top rung teams did not seem to significantly increase attendance any more-so than other match-ups. Games featuring poor talent decreased the chances of good attendance from 9% to just 2%.

  • Other than the semis and finals which were sold out and excluded from the data, the round of the tournament didn't seem to significantly affect attendance.

  • 2009 attendance was significantly greater than in 2006 even when factoring in the other factors above. The effect was marginally significant, but did indicate increased 2009 attendance. Selig and company should be pleased at this result as they surely hope to improve on this in 2013 as well.

    A summary of the chances of excellent or good attendance success can be seen in this chart below.


    For completeness, I also re-ran the model with the venue as a covariate. While this somewhat overfits the model, it's useful to see which venues were the most and least successful. The following list shows LA as the best and Miami as the worst (by far) of the 9 venues for the WBC.

    1. LA
    2. Tokyo
    3. Mexico City
    4. San Juan
    5. San Diego
    6. Toronto
    7. Orlando
    8. Arizona
    9. Miami

    So, what can be done with this data to doctor up the tournament and it's lacking attendance and interest? While there was an improvement in 2009, only 36% of the games had excellent or good attendance - surely not the numbers MLB hoped for when they conceived of the WBC.

    Currently the WBC is a tournament style affair with the winners advancing on to subsequent rounds. However, as we've just shown, attendance to the WBC isn't driven by building drama as the tournament gets deeper, but rather it's driven by specific match-ups played in specific locations regardless of whether the game is a must win or an opening round matchup. The WBC doesn't have the cache to sell fans simply on the fact that they are getting to see a late-round WBC matchup - but fans will come out to see specific match-ups (usually involving their own team), especially if they know they are coming more than one or two days in advance.

    The prescription? More home games, more host countries, less terrible teams, and a set schedule hand-picked by the WBC to appeal to the fans. The WBC could do well to pare down the field to 10 teams rather than 16. Perhaps 8 of the teams, the US, Dominican, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Cuba would be permanent members, with the other 8 playing for two spots into the tournament in an off year. In my example, I have Canada and Panama as the other two teams to get the tournament to 10.

    But how can we get more home games and more appealing match-ups without ruining the integrity of the competition or running teams ragged going from country to country? MLB consists of a regular season and a postseason and I see no reason why that can't be the case in the WBC as well. The advantage of a "regular season," I propose a six-game long affair, is that the WBC can pick the match-ups and locations well in advance, maximizing the fan appeal and giving fans enough time to figure out which tickets they want to buy.

    My example schedule, as seen below, has each team playing in three different locations and a total of 8 host countries, up from just 5 in 2009. The schedule has a home team in 60% of the games and features a lot of the match-ups that fans would love to buy tickets for: DR @ PR, Korea @ Japan, USA @ Venezuela, USA @ Cuba, Venezuela @ DR, Cuba @ PR, Japan @ USA to name a few. In 2006, the WBC passed by without a marquee US vs. Latin America matchup - now we get these juicy games guaranteed and locked in with enough time to build excitement and ticket sales around the games. Some of the best match-ups are scheduled for back-to-back games, increasing the intensity of the rivalries while having the added scheduling effect of increasing the percentage of home games without running the teams ragged flying from place to place.


    The final round, which would advance the top 4 teams from the regular season, would proceed as it did in 2006 and 2009 - a format that worked fairly well given the sold-out nature of the games.

    One of the chief drawbacks of the format is that the strength of schedule may not be the same for all teams. However, the WBC is already de facto setting the competitive balance and likely match-ups with its pool selection, so this is probably no worse. What's better is that this format should cut down the number of repetitive contests (the US may play Venezuela five times before 2009 is over).

    Another criticism may be that some later games may have little championship significance. However, this was the case in 2006 and the 2009 "pool championship" games also took on little significance with no attendance drop-off. As we've seen above, it's the matchup, not the significance of the games that have the biggest effect on attendance.

    The main advantage of course, is a slate of games far more appealing that those played in either 2006 or 2009. Plugging the projected schedule into the logistic regression model, we see that now approximately 57% of the games will have "good" attendance and 38% of the games will have "excellent" attendance, up from the 36% and 17% respectively in 2009.

    The new format, while not perfect of course, is an improvement over the current structure. With more home games, more home cities, and more exciting match-ups, the attendance will grow and the reputation of the WBC will grow in accordance. This new format would play to the tournament's strengths, showcasing intriguing match-ups and international fans eager to root on their country, rather than trying to pretend the games are of grand significance simply because it's the World Baseball Classic.

  • Comments

    I am surprised you did not comment on the timing of the WBC. March is not a good time to have the tournament. With MLB players unprepared to play and competition from March Madness in the US, the WBC is not even on the radar of most sports fans.

    A lengthening of the MLB All-Star break and playing the games then, when no other major sports are being played, would have a dramatic impact on the WBC and its place in the public consciousness.

    The timing thing is a tricky question. When there seems to be no real good time to do it. Anyway, nice job. You might want to correct next classic's year. It will be played on 2013.

    There really is no timing issue because there is no timing. This tourney is a bad idea. Most players aren't ready to play high-intensity ball this early, which is why so many of them are getting hurt. Few people in the US care about this glorified exhibition, which is why the ratings are so flaccid. The best way to improve it isn't to lengthen it, which will only get more player hurt, is to kill it. And good riddance. The last thing this world needs is another vehicle for the illness of nationalism.

    Seems just as many Spring Traning players are getting hurt as well, and more seriously. I think Andrecheck's format would help keep players fresh and get them enough work, so the March issue shouldn't be as bad. Players should really just do themselves a favr and keep fresh during the winter.

    Interesting analysis.

    I am sure the US at Cuba series would draw very well there, but do you think that US policy towards Cuba will have changed enough by the next WBC for United States players to be allowed to travel and play there?

    Interesting comment Dave. The Baltimore Orioles played in Cuba in 1999, so there is precedent for exhibition baseball there. The Obama administration seems to want to ease travel restrictions, but certainly there would be political hoops to jump through in order to make US @ Cuba happen. If they could get it done it would certainly raise interest in the WBC both here and in Cuba

    re:'such as Korea vs. Mexico @ LA'
    I think that was at San Diego. I may be mistaken.

    Anyway, very interesting ideas, but if MLB was behind this thing, attendance would sky rocket stateside. Put Pujols, Johan Santana, Markakis and Quentin out there and 'if you build it(real teams), they will come.' When I think of the best American baseball players, I dont think LaTroy Hawkins. That is part of the problem. I also dont think Derek Jeter should ever start over Jimmy Rollins either but whats done is done.

    Eric G, Pujols and Santana were actually slated to play but couldn't because of injury concerns, Santana's off-season knee surgery and Pujols elbow/cost of insurance. I think the problem with the American team isn't' that MLB isn't behind it, it's that the teams aren't being built by the most foward thinking members of MLB, which is likely because MLB as an organization doesn't seem to be particularly foward thinking.

    To readers of sites like this it makes no sense that Jeter, and Dunn for that matter, would be in the field while Rollins DH's and Victorino sits on the bench, but to the guys putting together and managing these teams Jeter is clearly the superior player to Rollins and there's no way Dunn's fielding is bad enough to negate all those homers he hits. Guys like Markakis probably don't even cross their minds.

    The ideal would be for baseball to be an Olympic sport, and for the MLB to send its best players to compete in the Olympics for their home nations. This is what happens with basketball and hockey. Either the season continues without the stars, which is what now happens with the WBC and the Japan League, or once every four years we get a really long all star break. Shorten the schedule those years. I actually like the Japan League option, as things are now star players getting injured has more impact than people realize on the division races, this would be no different except it is planned.

    The World Cup works well for soccer because it predates letting the professionals into the Olympics by a considerable amount, is grew to be bigger than the Olympics. Plus internationally soccer is bigger than baseball. I'm not sure if you could invent the soccer World Cup from scratch today, there are too many other established sporting events competing for attention.

    The "we don't want to lose our best players" argument fails because with the WBC as it is now, losing them for spring training turns out to have a big impact, plus now you have the prospect of someone missing most of the season, instead of half the season, with a WBC related injury. There really is no way to have an international tournament with MLB players and not have it affect the regular season, because the regular season in baseball is so long.

    Ed, I like your idea, but there are a couple major roadblocks. For one, who owns and operates World Baseball Classic, Inc.? MLB! They won't step on the possibility of shortening the MLB regular season, as that would cost the owners revenues and profit. It isn't that way for hockey and basketball at the Olympics, as those tournaments are run by the international federations. Unless the IBAF gets control of the WBC, rather than being a partner with MLB in the event, this won't happen.

    Sky, very nice work, fellow Illini!

    I, for one loved the wbc. Pretty much watched every usa game. I do think one of the major factors that hurt the image of it was that lack of bodies in the stands in some of the games (miami). Classic sporting events in my mind need two things -great game+great atmosphere. I think baseball really messed up by chosing miami as a location. Is there a location in the us that has more luck warm fans in all of sports (maybe atlanta)then miami. I understand that they were counting on several latin american teams being there, and hence choosing miami as what should be a great location. Well, that region of the country specifially americans dont have a passioin for baseball like other places. Since this is still in its infancy i think it would have been a brilliant move to have the miami games played in either one of the two newyork stadiums and really create some buzz. I am pretty sure that the st johns game being played in citi field this week is gonna draw pretty huge considering it is the first game ever played there. Choosing this as a site would have been perfect on three fronts. The rabid fans of new york. The massive diversity of the ethnicity from that area. (The fans for usa, cuba, puerto rico, japan, korea, dr, etc...could have all personally sold out the stadium.) and the whole novelty of seeing the first games ever at these stadiums. Those game would have been electric. If weather is a concern you start the classic one week later and there by also lessening the concerns of the players (usa) not being in shape yet. Oh yea, and dont ever let davy johnson mange again, ever. longoria instead of victorino, jeter over rollins. Absolutley some of the worst managing i have ever seen.