30 March 2017
Baseball's Appeal to a Global Fanbase
Troy, New York – 1869.
Eighteen year old, Esteban Bellán took his spot at third base for the Troy Haymakers baseball team. He had come to America to study and ended up making history he would never be aware of (1). He was playing a small role in shaping the demographics of Major League Baseball.
Bellán was the first Latin American born ballplayer. His name has been lost somewhat to time. Little is known about him, including which hand he threw with or from which side of the plate he batted from, but his impact is strong. He played for the Haymakers until 1872 and appeared for the New York Mutuals in 1873, before returning to his birth home of Cuba in 1874. The Cuban League of baseball was established in 1878, with Bellán participating as both a player and a manager for the Havana team during the 1885 and 1886 seasons. Although baseball in Cuba predates Bellán, his return home and the baseball knowledge he brought with him, helped to set off Latin America's baseball boom (2).
In the past 60 years the demographics of Major League Baseball have been transformed. In 1956, the percentage of Latino ballplayers in the Majors was 5% (3). As of 2016, the number has risen to nearly 29% (4).
This is a reflection of America's own change in cultural and ethnic diversity. Currently, the Latino population of the United States is close about 18% or 56.6 million people (5). There is an influx of Latin culture coming to the United States and it is creating an appetite for cultural diversity among Americans. The appetite doesn't extend to Central and South America alone, it is reaching far and wide across the globe. The young, Millennial generation, loves diversity. Their outlook on immigration has been infectious. More Americans have the perception that immigrants make America stronger (5).
This may account for the Soccer's recent rise in population. Soccer is the world's favorite sport. Aside from the Olympics, the World Cup is the one sporting event that really brings the world together. It has a way of making people feel close to one another. Soccer is the common language between the people of the world; learn to speak it and it will get you deeper into another person's culture.
All US sports are trying to branch out into other parts of the world. Basketball is an Olympic sport and one of the most popular sports in the world. American Football has held exhibition games in London, but it has firm competition from soccer.
Baseball, too, is trying to draw in international fans. March 2017 marks the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. The WBC isn't the first time the baseball world has attempted to come together. From 1938 to 2011, there was the Baseball World Cup (which was won by Cuba 25 times.(6)
Esteban Bellán and others like him, had unknowingly turned Cuba into a baseball powerhouse. In regards to moving interest in the sport from country to country, the Cubans did most of the heavy lifting. By the 1890s, the Cubans had brought baseball to other countries around the Caribbean and Latin America. Today, in some Latin American countries, baseball is the national sport. Latin culture is known for its deep rooted passion and vibrancy. Baseball in the Dominican Republic reflects precisely that.
“Vitilla” - Dominican stickball – is played with broomsticks and bottle caps. Major League stars, David Ortiz and Albert Pujols, both started they journey to the big leagues by playing this game (8). The sports drink, Red Bull, has sponsored Vitilla tournaments in the Dominican Republic since 2009. In 2015, Red Bull sponsored a Vitilla tournament in New York City – the first in the United States. The reason? New York City's Dominican immigrants have brought the stickball craze to their new home. There are over 700,000 Dominican immigrants in New York City and the number is rising every year. While they have moved, baseball and Vitilla remain a source of pride and heritage for them. It is a reminder of where they have come from(8)(9).
For Dominican baseball stars who have immigrated to play for the Major Leagues – playing for their country is a great source of pride. They are proud to represent their country on a global scale and the Dominican people are proud to watch. In the past, the World Baseball Classic has made record TV ratings in the Dominican Republic (10).
The WBC is attempting to expose people to the international world of baseball. It has done well in the Dominican and Cuba as well as in Japan – another country where baseball is a top sport. Through the channels of Facebook and online livestreams, it reaches people in China, Australia and Israel. These countries have teams in the WBC, so it has been successful in producing global interest (11).
Worldwide it captures the attention of millions, but it struggles in the United States. Timing the WBC is difficult within the sports structure of America. Baseball's own season stretches from spring training in February to the World Series with can stretch into early November. During the winter, NFL football reigns. Followed by the NBA. In March, the same month as the WBC – NCAA basketball's “March Madness” takes over.
The World Baseball Classic is only televised in the United States on the cable channel - MLB Network (12). A great channel offering great baseball information, but what difference would it make if the WBC was broadcast in the way it wants to be received? The World Baseball Classic wants to be a global World Series – the World Series is available for everyone to watch without adding channels to their cable plan.
The timing of the WBC presents another issue. Falling so close to the Major League season, it is perceived as an injury risk to players, especially starting pitchers whose arms are more highly valued. No team wants their pitchers injured in or worn out by a competition that doesn't tie into their World Series campaign (10).
Baseball has every reason to market itself as a global sport. That is exactly what it is. It may not be as global as soccer and may never be, but it has its own cultural depth. Baseball has more than just its rich history to offer, the sport offers history in the making amidst a melting pot of cultures. With America's immigrant growth and passion for diversity, baseball may just get a new life. Baseball spread out from America and now it is coming back into it.
Check out some of those live streams or tune into the World Baseball Classic if you can. Get a taste of the diversity baseball has to offer.
Esteban Bellán: http://www.library.fordham.edu/cubanbaseball/photoimages/e_bellan_7X13.jpg
Dominican baseball picture: http://blogs.uww.edu/fischerca17/files/2014/12/dominican-baseball11.jpg