The WBC, March Madness Style

Four years ago, I wrote a post on “Fixing the WBC” that revolved around one primary suggestion: move the timing of the event to mid-season. Many of the reservations that teams have about their players participating in the event have to do with the injury risks of getting away from a normal pre-season workout, and moving the event to mid-season — in that piece, I suggested just replacing the All-Star Game with the WBC and making the break a few days longer — would eliminate that primary concern.

However, it’s not a particularly realistic suggestion. The All-Star Game is a big money maker for Major League Baseball, and a sport as steeped in tradition as MLB isn’t going to simply cast it aside once every four years. While fully represented WBC squads playing meaningful games would almost certainly be more entertaining than any AL/NL All-Star clash, MLB’s preference is clearly for both events to be highly successful, rather than choosing one over the other. Just from a financial perspective, canceling the All-Star Game is probably a non-starter, so even if I think the WBC would work better mid-season, it’s probably not a feasible idea.

However, I do think that there’s one aspect of the mid-season WBC suggestion that could easily be ported over to the current timeframe and would make the event both more enjoyable and increase participation from MLB players: make the entire event a single elimination tournament, March Madness style.

The current setup for the WBC involves three rounds; a set of four round-robin pools with six games in each pool, then two second round double elimination groups with another six games apiece, and then the championship round that culminates with a three game single elimination finale. That’s 39 games spread out over 17 days. Most of those 39 games aren’t going to carry much weight, and unfortunately, they’re going to be ignored by a large population of the audience that MLB is trying to capture.

26 of the 39 games that were played in the 2009 WBC drew less than 20,000 fans in attendance, and many of those were in the 10,000 range. The first round matchups in Japan drew 40,000+ for each of the three games that involved Japan, then 13,000 for each of the three games that didn’t. In Toronto, they got over 40,000 for U.S. vs Canada, then topped out at 13,272 over the next five games. Even with powerhouses like Venezeula and the U.S. to watch, along with rooting on Team Canada, there was little interest in five of the six first round games. Even in the second round, the double elimination format saw match-up fatigue set in. The U.S. vs Puerto Rico drew 30,000 in their first game in Miami, then drew just 13,000 for their rematch three days later.

It just doesn’t need to take 38 games to eliminate 14 teams and leave us with a single game championship. It’s overkill, and it reduces the importance of each individual game. Yes, it increases the chance that the best teams will advance from each round, but I’m not even sure that’s actually in the sport’s best interests. The best moments in NCAA tournament history are the little guys storming the court after knocking off a top seed, and the fact that each game is a win-or-go-home affair adds a level of tension to each game that is essentially unmatched in any other sport.

Major League Baseball has already been wooed by the excitement of single game eliminations, and expanded the playoffs to ensure that we get two additional winner-take-all playoff games every year. They’re not very good indicators of team strength, and there’s an inherently unfair characteristic to having all that work decided by one game, but it’s absurdly exciting. And, let’s be honest, baseball could stand to be viewed as a more exciting sport.

Switching to a single elimination tournament would give us a 15 game schedule in the winner’s bracket, and would allow for the entire event to take place in a single week. Instead of having it spread out over the first half of March, imagine this WBC schedule:

March 18th:

1 vs 4: Japan vs Brazil
1 vs 4: Venezuela vs Chinese Taipei
1 vs 4: United States vs Spain
1 vs 4: Dominican Republic vs Italy

March 19th:

2 vs 3: Cuba vs China
2 vs 3: Korea vs Netherlands
2 vs 3: Mexico vs Australia
2 vs 3: Puerto Rico vs Canada

March 20th:

1/4 vs 2/3
1/4 vs 2/3
1/4 vs 2/3
1/4 vs 2/3

March 22nd:


March 24th:


The whole thing takes a week. No team would play more than two days in a row, and if a top seed went the whole way, they’d have a day off between each game. The strain put on valuable arms would be significantly reduced, and each country would only need to bring three starting pitchers with them, as the Game 1 starter would have four or five days rest before the Championship game. From a practical standpoint, you’d probably be looking at no more than 12-14 innings from any one pitcher, well down from the 20 that Hisashi Iwakuma threw to lead all pitchers in the 2009 tournament. In the 2009 WBC, eight teams asked their pitchers to throw at least 45 innings, and Japan, Korea, and Venezuela all topped 70 innings apiece. Under this current system, where no team would play more than four games, you’d be looking at a maximum of 35-40 innings pitched for each country.

Each game would be highly meaningful and worth watching. Yes, a top team like the U.S. or Venezuela might end up going out in the first or second round, but people do not turn off the NCAA tournament simply because Richmond beats Syracuse or because Lehigh beats Duke. These massive upsets are celebrated parts of the tournaments history, and so it would be if Chinese Taipei took out Venezuela in round one.

People love the NCAA tournament, not because it’s fair or a good indicator of a team’s talent level, but because it’s an exciting sporting event that provides drama and memories. I don’t remember a single game from the 2009 WBC, to be honest. The stakes are not high enough for any game to be considered all that memorable until you get to the semifinals, the only single elimination part of the entire tournament.

A single city venue would make travel far more equitable for the teams, would allow fans to make a spring vacation and go nuts watching baseball for a week, and would almost certainly increase attendance for every game, creating a more lively atmosphere in the process. From a logistical standpoint, having access to two MLB stadiums would be ideal, so the event could rate between Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, D.C., and the Bay Area when it is in the U.S. Those larger population centers would attract more fans to the parks than the current sites in Phoenix and Miami as well.

The primary weakness of a single elimination tournament is that it requires a big spread in talent between teams to provide a fair result if the desire is determine the best overall team. But, I don’t really see that as the point of the WBC. We’re already pretty well aware of the fact that MLB has a few powerhouse countries, and then there are others who are just getting involved in the sport. Giving those underdog countries a chance to advance through a single upset or series of surprising wins would do more to promote the growth of the sport in that country than putting them through low interest round robin games from which they’re unlikely to advance, and shortening the schedule would increase participation and give the WBC a stronger group of talent to promote.

I’m looking forward to the WBC, and will be attending several Pool D games when I’m in Phoenix next weekend, but I would be far more interested in spending a week immersed in a baseball version of March Madness, where every game was winner-take-all and I could watch the beginning to end in seven days. That’s a tournament that would get people’s attention. That’s a tournament that would show off the excitement of the sport of baseball.

Quick addition: As noted by Zach Levine, teams might not be interested in flying across the world to play one game that they probably won’t win. Easiest solution: a consolation bracket, guaranteeing each team multiple games.

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Dave is a co-founder of and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

48 Responses to “The WBC, March Madness Style”

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  1. dbake005 says:

    Love this idea. It would also get the big stars out easily. This could work and be a big, big thing.

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  2. This Guy says:

    I think this idea would help to get more interest stateside, but is that the intent of the WBC?

    If the purpose is more gaining popularity overseas, do you think this would have the same positive impact?

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Does the current WBC have that impact?

      The Pool play this year is in the U.S., Japan, Puerto Rico, and Taiwan. The U.S. and Japan are already pretty baseball crazy, and the event could shift between those places every four years, so that it’s not always an American venue. Is Taiwan going to get fired up about baseball because they get to watch Korea beat up on Chinese Taipei, Netherlands, and Australia? It’s not like the US or Venezuela are going to be playing there.

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  3. Jason says:

    Cut the baseball season in half too.

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  4. Zach says:

    I love this idea.

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  5. McAnderson says:

    Great idea! But why not make it 8 days and make sure no one plays back to back?

    3/17: 1v4(a)/ 1v4(b)/ 2v3(a)/ 2v3(b)
    3/18: 1v4(c)/ 1v4(d)/ 2v3(c)/ 2v3(d)
    3/19: 14v23 (a)/ 14v23(b)
    3/20: 14v23 (c)/ 14v23(d)
    3/21: Semi Final a vs b
    3/22: Semi Final c vs d
    3/23: Off Day
    3/24: Championship

    Obviously, not a big change from what you proposed, but I think it is better to have no team back to back, play games every day except 1 and have the number 1 seeds spread across the days better.

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  6. I offer my hearty *deafening applause*.

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  7. TKDC says:

    Love the idea, but mid-March is usually not the best time to watch baseball outside in DC, NY, etc. Also, if you really want to push internationalization and make it a destination thing, having it in other countries would be cool. No one from the U.S. would go to another country to watch a few early round games, but I think a lot of people would be interested in a trip to Puerto Rico or Japan or somewhere else if the whole tournament were taking place there inside a week.

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    • Matt says:

      I don’t think many fans would be willing to travel long distances, but more overall excitement means more TV viewers, which is how they make their money anyway. Give the local population a chance to see the stars up close and personal.

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    • MustBunique says:

      Mid-March is also a terrible time to have this type of tournament because of something referenced as a reason this type of tournament might succeed: IT’S MARCH MADNESS. 18th-20th is OK, but your are losing most viewers on the 22nd and 24th because that is when the NCAA tourney is in full swing. People would not turn off the touney to watch the WBC even if it were Lehigh vs Richmond.

      I love the idea, come up with a different time. How about when the World Series finishes?

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  8. Dave S says:

    That would freakin rock.

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  9. chuckb says:

    I can tell you that my preference is that none of my favorite team’s players play in the WBC, particularly the pitchers. They need to be getting ready for the major league season, not participating in some exhibition designed to just bring in more money for Bud and his minions. This solution is a better one than what they have now, though you could also do double-elimination rather than a consolation bracket. Treat it like the College World Series does instead. As is, I have absolutely no interest in the WBC.

    By the way, does Bud seriously not know that Puerto Rico is actually part of the United States?

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  10. Matt Bertelli says:

    Love the idea. I wish MLB would take this seriously. Love the one city location thing too. Might not want to make the location in the north such as Chicago or NYC if this is still taking place in March due to weather concerns.

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  11. Paul says:

    this is an awesome idea. It also would attract interest of people who gamble. Im not a big NCAA basketball fan but come march my friends and i always put some money down and fill out a bracket.

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  12. Dave S says:

    Does the winning country get a trophy?

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  13. legendaryan says:

    Yes. Please.

    This would add so much excitement to the summer break, my only reservation is what happens when someone gets injured? I feel like big name players would stop participating.

    Plus, something would have to be done about MLB’s stupid rule that the All Star Game winners get WS home field.

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    • Matt says:

      Not many stars play in it now for the same reason. This is less games, so less chances of getting injured.

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  14. Neil S says:

    What about a double-elimination format? It would add one day, max, to the total length and would only add extra work to the arms of pitchers if they were on one of the teams that was eliminated early. (Or if the championship goes to two games.) It also reduces the odds of a major upset or two turning the whole thing upside-down.

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  15. AverageMeansAverageOverTime says:

    I’m one of those that pays no attention to the WBC games. Under this format, however, I might at least check it out.

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  16. roadrider says:

    Don’t like it but don’t really care since I wish the WBC would just go away (of course it won’t). I’m not a basketball or NCAA tournament fan so the basis of the idea does not impress me at all and the single-elim setup would not make me any more likely to care a whit about or invest much time in watching the WBC.

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  17. kardo says:

    Other than the fact that I like the current WBC format, I wonder how you come to your rankings. Dominican Republic, United States, and Venezuela, for all their star power have reached the semi finals only once each, while finalists Korea and Cuba are doomed to be the second tier.

    Based on previous results the following would be much more sensible

    Tier 1:

    Tier 2:
    United States
    Puerto Rico
    Dominican Republic

    Tier 3:
    Chinese Taipei

    Tier 4:

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  18. newsense says:

    Once upon a time there were two All-Star Games, so why not have two breaks in the season in a WBC year, starting the season the last week in March: one week break at the end of May for the WBC, culminating with the semifinals and finals Memorial Day Weekend (Championship on Monday night after the Indy 500)and a 3 day All-Star break at the end of July. A later All-Star break would also reduce the number of two-month wonders that get named to the team.

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    • Brandon says:

      How many players in their Asian leagues are going to want to travel to North America (12+ hour time change) to play in a tournament then return to their country to continue regular season play?

      Or, if we flipped it. Would an American go to Japan for a week of play in May?

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  19. MrKnowNothing says:

    Adding another week to the season will also result in the playoffs starting later, and thus push the world series closer to november, which they’ve been trying to avoid.

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  20. Andrew says:

    What about a double elimination tournament? Depending on if the team doesn’t lose any of its first 3 games having an extra day off is an advantage or disadvantage, the final game could be a 1 or 2 game series. (The team from the loser’s bracket would have to win both in the 2 game series.

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  21. “While fully represented WBC squads playing meaningful games would almost certainly be more entertaining than any AL/NL All-Star clash, MLB’s preference is clearly for both events to be highly successful, rather than choosing one over the other.”

    Disagree. I would much rather see the All-Star game then teams with a bunch of no-names I have never heard of.

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  22. Paul S says:

    Everyone write their local Congressman urging them to push for this WBC legislation! Four more years! Four more years!

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  23. Dennis Abrams says:

    The problem is that seeding would necessarily be 100% arbitrary (unless you want to use questionable numbers like IBAF rankings).

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  24. Matt says:

    But if we get rid of the All star game who gets home field for the World Series…

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  25. Joe says:

    So the site and community that regular beats the drum about how the playoffs are a crapshoot, and how anything can happen in a short series, are suddenly going to be more interested in an exhibition tournament that is a series of tiny little crapshoots? Oooookay.

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  26. rusty says:

    The hard thing about a single-elimination tournament is that you’ll lose participation of the “fringe” squads. What incentive is there for Italy to recruit a team, hold a mini-camp, pay for everyone’s airfare, etc, if they’re almost certain to get dumped out after one game?

    Pool play is intended not necessarily to ensure the best teams advance (three games isn’t enough for that), but rather as a minimum guaranteed number of games, so that the worst teams consider it worthwhile to participate. You see similar problems with World Cup qualification tournaments — small counties will opt out altogether if the minimum isn’t enough incentive. A double-elimination format, as suggested above, might be enough, but I assume the organizing body is aware of the marginal participants’ decision process.

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  27. ogmak says:

    I have to disagree. I dont think people here realize how big the WBC is outside the US. The WBC finals was the 9th most viewed sporting event in 2009. Trying to Americanize it by making like March Madness might be better for a viewing experience here, but it sure is growing elsewhere. Especially with all the travel that goes along with some of the teams, having a week tournament would be pretty hard unless all the teams were in the same country like the WOrld Cup. RIght now in it’s relative infancy, I like having it start around the world since it’s growing, thus gaining more live interest in the sport.

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  28. DodgersKingsoftheGalaxy says:

    Get your basketball out of my baseball

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  29. Peter says:

    Why not two-game series, with ties decided by total runs? This makes the outcome less random, but also makes the second game exciting down to the last inning, especially if the first game was close. Let the championship be best of 3. This could would take just two weeks, like march madness, generating more revenue, etc., but with all of the excitement of a single game.

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  30. Brandon says:

    I’m curious where these games will take place and how this would help grow the sport. If the games take place in America, how many people are going to show for that Korea-Netherlands game? If the idea is to grow the sport, how is playing one game every four years a positive for a developing baseball nation?

    It’s funny that only North Americans (some of the least patriotic people on earth) feel this tourney needs a change.

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  31. William says:

    Why not stage it from mid january to February and have it rotate between countries like the world cup does. What if it included 32 teams instead of 16? If soccer is held in the winter in europe, couldn’t baseball be played there too?

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  32. Newcomer says:

    First things first, get it off MLB Network and onto a channel that reaches a wider audience! I’m following the WBC closely, but I can only “watch” the games via Gameday. Even so, I won’t be forgetting David Wright’s grand slam any time soon, nor the exciting runs by the Netherlands and Chinese Taipei.

    I understand the sentiment in the article, but I personally enjoy the current format. Especially when one considers that the best players are in spring training and not season-ready, allowing an early loss to be overcome seems prudent. And I would think fans would be more interested in the later rounds if their team wasn’t eliminated in its first game.

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