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MLB’s International Growth Strategy Helps Deliver Record-Breaking WBC

March 23, 2023

The 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC) was an undeniable success. The fifth installment of international baseball showcase broke records for attendance (more than 1.3 million fans passed through gates), viewership, and merchandise sales. The latter occurred before the end of the first round.

“It definitely surpassed anyone’s wildest expectations,” Noah Garden (chief revenue officer, Major League Baseball) said.

Baseball sees the data points as “affirmation of the international strategy it embarked upon years ago,” Garden said. “Affirmation that the league is headed in the right direction, doing things right to grow the game and connecting with an even greater fan base around the world.”

The WBC is a joint venture between the MLB Players Association and Major League Baseball. The two sides financially support and run the quadrennial event together.

MLB views the WBC as an important promotional vehicle for the league. “It’s always about increasing your reach and marketing the game,” Garden said.

If successful, the belief is the money will follow.

The WBC is already a profitable event. MLB said the ’23 tournament generated between $90 and $100 million in revenue, setting records for ticket sales, merchandise sales and sponsorship sales in the process.

The event also had a major domestic broadcast partner, in Fox, paying for the rights for the first time.

“The World Baseball Classic has attracted more visibility than it ever has in the past,” Garden said, in addition to the newfound revenues.

The tournament generated valuable social media engagement for baseball too.

Munetaka Murakami’s walk-off double that put Japan through to the finals drew more than 11 million views within an hour of being posted. To put that number in perspective, Bryce Harper’s walk-off home run during the ’22 NLCS received 2.2 million views in the five-month period following the game.

Fans abroad have clearly embraced in the WBC. Japan’s first four games averaged a 42.3 rating in the country, while 62% of people watching television in Puerto Rico on March 15 were locked into the national team’s game against the Dominican Republic.

International fans attended games en masse too. Tournament attendance rose +20% over the previous WBC record (1.08 million fans in ’17).

“What you’re seeing is major growth in other parts of the world, certainly in Asia,” Garden said.

U.S. fans got behind the event too. Tuesday night's game was the most-watched WBC game of all-time in America. A peak combined average audience of 6.5 million viewers tuned in to see Shohei Ohtani strike out Angels teammate and Team USA Captain Mike Trout and clinch the title .

Miami remained a strong location for the international baseball tournament. Average attendance rose just 8% (to 27,313), but Garden explained that’s simply a function of not being able to fit any more butts into seats.

“They’ve typically been sold out throughout this process in years past,” he said.

MLB views the success of the ’23 WBC as evidence its investments in youth development and global expansion over the last two decades are starting to pay off. Remember, MLB’s ventures abroad start from the ground up. It was always going to take time for those efforts to bear fruit.

The league plans to double down on its strategy in the years ahead.

“You’re going to see us do more of the same,” Garden said. “Continue to increase play abroad. Continue to increase investment in key international markets.”

The league will host regular season games in London, Mexico and Puerto Rico this year.

Baseball also credits the expanded roster of players participating in the '23 WBC with creating the buzz that existed around this year’s tournament.

“When you talk about a World Baseball Classic, fans want to see the best and most recognizable players in the world playing for their country,” Garden said. “In years past, we didn’t always have that level of participation. This year we had it–and it shows in the product.”

The tournament had 7 MLB MVPs, both reigning NPB MVPs and the reigning KBO MVP all participating. Mike Trout (U.S.), Mookie Betts (U.S.), Juan Soto (Dominican Republic) and Shohei Ohtani (Japan) were among the MLB stars who took part in the event for the first time.

It would be naïve to ignore the momentum baseball has right now when discussing catalysts for the WBC’s big leap forward.

“You saw it coming out of last year,” Garden said. “September had some of our best attendance numbers in years. Then it culminated in a post-season that was, from a ratings perspective, way up. Then you move to this year and there has been a lot of talk surrounding the rule changes that have been received as overwhelmingly successful so far…When fans can’t get enough, they look to events like this to get closer to the game.”

So, one can understand why MLB anticipates the '23 season will be a strong one.

Garden would not offer a total revenue prediction (MLB finished ’22 having generated upwards of $11 billion).

However, he noted the league has enjoyed record years for the last couple of years in some key business categories, including merchandising and sponsorship, and anticipates the growth will continue.

“Early signs would suggest we’re headed in the right direction for this year,” Garden said.

The next WBC will take place in 2026.

“Based on the results this year, MLB expects to, have even more partners, even greater promotion and even more fans watching that event,” Garden said.

That should ensure stars from across the globe continue to participate and the competition remains strong, despite the season-ending injury suffered by Mets closer Edwin Diaz.

It’s logical to wonder if increased engagement with the WBC has negatively impacted fan interest in spring training. It seems difficult to get excited about a split squad matchup in Jupiter when baseball’s biggest stars are playing meaningful games on a global stage.

However, the data suggests the WBC tide lifted all boats. “We’ve had more folks watching spring training games [this year] than we’ve had in quite some time,” Garden said. “And in general, the promotion has been very positive for the game of baseball. Fans are looking to engage with the sport every place they can.”

They’ll have one more week to do it in Florida or Arizona before the calendar turns to Opening Day.

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