Good news week for Aussie baseball
4 August 2016
While the progress of our elite under-aged teams currently competing at tournaments in Japan and United States has drawn intense interest among the baseball fraternity, there has been a rapid-fire burst of major announcements with great import for the sport at national and international level.
Following release of the 2017 World Baseball Classic groupings – which sees Australia pitted against superpowers in Japan and Cuba – it was officially announced this week that baseball would be re-admitted to the Olympic Games in 2020 after being on the outer since Beijing eight years ago.
Both events present an enormous opportunity for Australian baseball – as does the growth of a strong and viable Australian Baseball League, which enters a bold new era after Baseball Australia and the state associations this week formally accepted responsibility for management and funding of the competition.
A three-time starter at the World Baseball Classic (2006, 2009 and 2013), Australia earned a berth for 2017 by winning its qualifying series against South Africa, New Zealand and Philippines in Sydney earlier this year.
Sixteen teams from four continents will be split into groups of four for 2017, with first round pool games already awarded to Japan and Korea for March next year and other pool play likely to be held in United States after the remaining groups are finalised.
Drawn in Pool A, Australia will compete against host nation Japan, China and Cuba, whose preference is to have scheduled early games in Asia and to minimise play on the North American mainland until it is necessary.
Build-up to the World Baseball Classic will become increasingly intense over coming months, with the tournament recognised as a world championship that has effectively replaced the Olympics during its hiatus.
For Australia – which finished last in its pool for 2013 – there will be the opportunity to build upon its qualifying success by selecting a team that is expected to have a solid balance of established professionals and emerging young players.
A formal announcement regarding the Olympic Games has been anticipated for some time and is no real surprise given that the games are being hosted by baseball-mad Japan, although there are no guarantees that baseball – or softball – will continue as an Olympic sport in 2024.
While the news is being celebrated by baseball and softball nations, there is one distinctly sobering thought for Australia before we allow ourselves to be caught up in too much euphoria.
Despite winning a silver medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, Australia is currently ranked thirteen in the baseball world and it has plenty of work ahead to be even a chance of qualifying for Tokyo 2020 – especially given that the baseball competition will be at most an eight-team, and perhaps even a six-team competition.
However, with a seemingly far greater commitment by Baseball Australia to enter teams at international tournaments that carry points, we may well see a progressive improvement in our ranking as we move towards the 2019 Premier 12 and the 2020 Olympics.
That is the admirable goal, and it is one that many believe is achievable – especially if miserly current government funding is restored to where it should be in befitting an Olympics sport in which Australia has enjoyed a degree of success.
Welcome as these major announcements have been, of more immediate concern to many in the baseball community is the future of the resurrected Australian Baseball League, which enters its seventh season in November this year.
Although Major League Baseball remains actively involved in the development of Australian baseball – especially through its wonderful academy programme on the Gold Coast – it has withdrawn its stake as major shareholder in the national league, leaving Baseball Australia to assume outright ownership of the ABL and its six clubs.
Management, administration and delivery of the Australia Baseball League will now be the responsibility of Baseball Australia, which will work with the states on forging closer working relationships between the state associations and the existing clubs.
Given that the Australian Baseball League ran substantial operating losses over its first six years – even with MLB funding - the 2016/17 season will be very much geared towards a holding pattern as other options and other avenues for financial support might be identified.
Although there seems a real chance that club franchises might be offered for private ownership, potential investors would need to have confidence in future prospects for league growth.
While rusted-on baseball aficionados around the land would dearly love to see the Australian Baseball League – over time – become an unqualified success, Baseball Australia, the state governing bodies and the clubs themselves are faced with some serious challenges in the 40-game season that will commence in mid-November.
Despite Baseball Australia efforts to talk up attendances over the past six seasons, the fact remains that the Australian Baseball League has not drawn the support that was anticipated at the outset – with only Brisbane, Canberra and Perth averaging over 1000 at home games last season. What strategies will be applied to increase crowd numbers and club memberships?
For its first six years, the Australian Baseball League placed a significant, and many would say undue reliance on United States interns to manage club operations across the spectrum of tasks required by any professional sporting organisation. Assuming that the flow of interns will reduce – or even stop altogether – how do the ABL and the state associations plan on covering the multitude of tasks that are involved? Will it all come down to paid personnel at Baseball Australia and the state associations – all of whom already have plenty on their plate?
In its original charter, the ABL was touted as a “development league” – an ambiguous descriptor, as it turned out. While opportunities were created for a number of our own emerging younger players, player “development” appeared to be geared more towards the American imports – professional farmhands and independent league players some of whom have thankfully gone on to greater things in the sport.
Early indications are that there may be less imports allowed at each club for 2016/17 - potentially opening up opportunities for our wealth of home-grown talent - although Major League Baseball interests will certainly continue to refer players and coaches to our shores as deemed fit. Increased engagement of our emerging players has to be a good thing, and it may conceivably help clubs to garner a greater following and support base among the grassroots baseball community.
The playing standard of the Australian Baseball League improved progressively over the past six years. If baseball is to become a viable, attractive and popular option in an overcrowded sports market then it needs to be of a consistently elite standard. If it is being run, however, on the smell of an oily rag then it may not be able to attract all of the very best managers, players and staff who may be costed out of the equation.
These are just some of many issues that baseball supporters will be discussing in view of recent releases regarding the ABL.
It is a good and healthy thing that the baseball community has finally become privy to decisions and developments that have clearly been in the works for some time.
It is a positive development, too, that responsibility for delivery and growth of the Australian Baseball League is now more squarely placed in the hands of our primary stakeholders – generous sponsors, national and state governing bodies, grassroots club people and our volunteers.
These are exciting times. Challenging, yes, although intensely interesting. Roll on, Australian Baseball League season.
Let us support the project and help make the new season a cracker!