Do we risk becoming a poor baseball cousin?
2 July 2015
Just eleven years ago, Australia was silver medallist at the Athens Olympic Games and should arguably have gone one better had baseball justice prevailed. They were heady and exciting days indeed.
Fast forward to 2015, when there is conjecture about baseball being re-admitted to the Olympics in 2020. If it is, Australia would need to qualify. For any country to qualify, it will need to perform well at the 2019 Premier 12 Series, which is this year being played for the first time.
Australia failed to qualify for the inaugural Premier 12. And just recently, it was confirmed that Australian baseball had been reclassified under the federal budget, resulting in a massive reduction to government funding. What should we make of all this?
There are a number of elements worth reflecting upon, none of which bodes especially well for the future of Australian baseball in international competition – nor even for its elite development at under-aged level, despite transition to an upgraded pathway model for our kids and some outstanding recent outcomes in Little League and Junior League.
Central to all considerations, there is the matter of federal funding into the foreseeable future.
For the 2015/16 Australian financial year, twenty-seven sports have had their overall funding increased, with a quite reasonable emphasis on encouraging greater participation. Baseball, however, is one of a handful of sports – including softball and table tennis – that have been reclassified under a high-performance schedule for 2015/16, a schedule that is “based on their potential to contribute to Australia’s Winning Edge targets” (Australian Sports Commission euphemism for winning medals here, there or anywhere else).
There is an altered high-performance funding formula for baseball. “The whole of sport investment for baseball has been classified as a high-performance grant,” according to ASC guidelines, “due to the possibility of inclusion in the 2020 Olympic Games.”
Given what the ASC describes as “uncertainty over its inclusion and an assessment by the Australian Sports Commission of the team’s performance potential”, baseball will receive $ 415,000 of high performance funding in 2015/16 – a reduction of $ 430,000 from 2014/15.
Hardly a ringing vote of confidence in our sport's "potential to contribute"!
While investment in participation is up by a welcome $164,000, total funding – according to Australian Sports Commission documents – will be
$ 875,000 overall, a reduction of $ 266,000 on the 2014/15 financial year.
Any person at national or state level who holds a high performance role will clearly be concerned about this, for jobs – one would suppose – are likely to go. And as high performance roles fall by the wayside, we can reasonably expect that service will be diminished and that our prospects for raising the overall standard of Australian baseball in the near future may be compromised.
It is the classic Catch 22 situation. To gain increased funding support – either from government or the corporate sector – baseball is required to be “more successful”. To be “more successful”, the sport clearly needs to be resourced more generously and targeted more deliberately rather than being downgraded by what is effectively a self-fulfilling recipe for failure.
Overall reduction in government funding – for 2015/16 something in the order of thirty per cent – will clearly make it more difficult for baseball. With the greater emphasis on funding participation – a laudable goal in itself – we can only hope that the sport somehow develops a greater capacity to attract and retain in greater numbers. We need also to hope that our revamped junior pathway programme, the upgrade of coaching requirements and the trend towards more “user pays” services will have a positive impact over time.
Should baseball be readmitted to the Olympic Games for 2020 then we may see a change of funding approach in subsequent years, but only if there is a perceived improvement in our “performance potential” at national level. How that potential will be assessed is not yet clear, although one assumes that it will relate to outcomes at international level in upcoming tournaments.
All that Australian baseball can reasonably hope to do in the current climate is to maximise international playing opportunities – at all levels – and to capitalise on those opportunities within the resources that are available. Although there are funding challenges, Australia simply needs to play more games and to attend more tournaments – especially at senior national level – to become a stronger baseball nation.
Failing that, Australia runs the real risk of becoming a poor baseball cousin on the world stage, despite our players and our teams having punched well above their weight for many years.
And this is where the Premier 12 tournament comes in.
Had Australia qualified for the Premier 12 then it would have been in a position to press for increased high-performance funding and it would have earned a crack at winning a share of the big money that will be on offer from the event. All qualifying nations as a minimum will have their expenses met and they will be strategically placed to argue for a slice of the media and sponsorship pie.
Qualifying for the Premier 12 would have provided an enormous boost to Australian baseball – both locally and on an international stage. The timing of the event, its prestige and its prize money all position the Premier 12 series to potentially become far bigger, even, than the Olympics – simply because the strongest baseball countries have qualified and the very best players may decide to make themselves available during the northern hemisphere off-season.
Whether the series does draw the very best players from Major League will depend on individual contractual arrangements and support of the MLB Players’ Association, although tournament organisers will clearly be negotiating to ensure that the twelve participating teams are the best that can reasonably be made available.
Unfortunately for us, Australia did not qualify for the Premier 12 under IBAF world rankings, which currently have us at fourteen, just a handful of points shy of Panama (thirteen), Mexico (twelve) and Italy (eleven). While there is nothing that we can do about it, some baseball people have raised reasonable concerns about a process that effectively left us out in the cold.
Ranked tenth for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Australia was then among the same crop of nations as Italy (ranked ninth for that series) and Mexico (eleven), while Panama did not make the final group of sixteen. Australia’s performance at the 2013 Classic was not what we would have liked – losing all three first round games to Chinese Taipei, South Korea and Netherlands – meaning that we will be required to play in a qualifying round (as will Mexico, Brazil and Spain) to have a chance of making the cut for the 2017 event.
While the powerhouse baseball nations – as you would expect - have comfortably qualified for the inaugural Premier 12, there are legitimate questions being asked about IBAF ranking procedures, including the provision of points through local, sometimes even weekend tournaments – especially in Europe and Central America. And there is the reasonable query about whether Australia has improved at international level or has declined since those exciting days back in 2004.
The fact remains that Australia simply does not play anywhere near the number of games as other nations, seriously restricting its capacity to earn IBAF points. Earlier this year it played New Zealand and Guam in the Oceania qualifying series, where only half points were allocated for wins. At around the same time, the Caribbean Games offered Central American countries – including Panama and Mexico - the opportunity to improve on their IBAF ranking.
Similarly, in Europe, modest baseball countries have enjoyed the opportunity to improve on their IBAF rankings through the playing of “friendlies” that are able – unlike Australia – to exploit the proximity and the cost effectiveness of playing neighbouring countries.
No such luxury for Australia, of course, although there are knowledgeable people around the sport who believe that Australia could – and should – have sought to participate in more IBAF recognised tournaments at senior and junior levels, notwithstanding the cost sensitivities and the shortage of funding for baseball given its non-Olympic status.
While geographic location continues to pose challenges for Australian baseball – especially in contrast to other countries – it may still be the case that we are not as good at this sport as we may have thought. Although not a great deal separates countries currently ranked eleven through seventeen by the IBAF, perhaps we are still well off the pace in international competition. Or are we? Plenty might disagree.
As the baseball world awaits a decision on the 2020 Olympic Games – one that may be announced in the next nine months – Australia will need to commit to improve on its IBAF rankings over the next four years to realistically have a shot at either the 2019 Premier 12 or the 2020 Olympics.
Just as the Olympics situation is not yet clear, there is uncertainty over a revamp of the IBAF ranking system that is currently under review. At its best dodgy and at its worst potentially quite unfair, the rankings system is complex in its inclusion of a multiplier factor for more prestigious events and a sliding scale of points allocation that is dependent upon the ranking of other nations that a particular country beats. Presented with minimal opportunities to play against top ten senior baseball nations, Australia stands to gain relatively little points mileage from Oceania series against the likes of New Zealand and Guam.
However, while some tinkering might occur, we are unlikely to see any significant overhaul to the rankings system. The key baseball nations will inevitably qualify, while the rankings process will impact more significantly on the contest for placings eight through to twelve.
While there are many positives happening around Australian baseball – including in the junior area – our version of the sport is faced with serious challenges over coming years if it is to become a consistently serious presence on the world stage. With uncertainty surrounding the Olympic Games – and with the 2017 World Baseball Classic and 2019 Premier 12 tournament on the agenda – Australia’s focus will need to be on consistently performing at its optimum level, winning games and placing trust that the cards will fall our way.
Do you, or does your baseball organisation have a view on Australia’s role – or its potential - as a world baseball power given current government funding and our place in the sporting landscape? If so, we would be pleased to consider any relevant submission for publication (email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com).