Greed Drives Global Sports
by Glenn Dickey
Feb 14, 2006

AMERICAN SPORTS executives are trying to take their sports global, from NFL Europe to this year’s world baseball tournament. There’s a simple motivation: Greed.

For years, the NFL has played exhibition games in other countries. It started, and has continued, NFL Europe, which has value as a development league.

Has that established American football in Europe? Not really. NFL Europe is primarily a German league. There have been relatively successful ventures in England, as well, but the primary sport in Europe remains soccer, called football everywhere but in this country. In England, rugby is also far ahead of American football in spectator interest.

But even the tiny foothold American football has gained in Europe has meant an exponential increase in the number of football-related items that are sold in that continent. That’s the primary reason NFL teams continue to subsidize the league, though there were early reports that it might be dropped this year.

I guess you can call it American know-how. In contrast, soccer enthusiasts have for decades tried to get their sport established in this country, with limited success. Youth soccer is very big, but professional soccer lags far behind the well-established American sports. Perhaps it’s because the soccer people have tried to sell their sport as a game, instead of as a vehicle for selling merchandise. Silly them.

Last year, the NFL even scheduled a regular season game in Mexico City, between the 49ers and Arizona Cardinals. There has been talk that the league would expand to Mexico City some day, though there would seem to be better ways to expose Mexican fans to American football than with these two wretched teams.

The game was an artistic flop, as the 49ers played probably their worst game in two seasons, no mean accomplishment. But financially, it was a big payoff. More than 100,000 fans came to the game. Had it been played in Arizona, as originally scheduled, the crowd probably would have been little more than a third of that total.

And Mexican fans watching Anthony Clement’s play at left tackle for the Niners were no doubt reminded of the matador ushering the bull past him in local bullfights.

It’s never a good idea to schedule regular season games in another country because those games could have an effect on the standings, though there was no danger of that with the 49ers-Cardinals. But baseball commissioner Bud Selig took this a step further by having the first two games of the season opening series between the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Devilrays played in Tokyo in 2003. Those games were played a week in advance of other scheduled games, giving the teams a week to get over jet lag. The last two games were played in Tampa Bay.

If Selig’s intent was to spread interest in baseball, he picked the wrong spot. Decades ago, Lefty O’Doul made baseball popular in Japan, and it has become a national obsession. With Japanese players now playing in the major leagues, it is commonplace to see Japanese writers in the press box. When Tsuyoshi Shinjo played for the Giants, one writer was assigned to write a story about him every day, even on days when the Giants didn’t play.

Now, Selig has an even worse idea: the world baseball tournament.

IN ONE FORM or another, the concept of this tournament has been discussed for many years, since the rise of baseball interest in Latin America – major league rosters are now more than 30 per cent Latino – has made it feasible.

The question has always been the timing. From an American standpoint, it would be best immediately after the World Series, but that would conflict with the winter leagues in Mexico and the Caribbean. So, Selig decided to put it in March, during the spring training period.

Bad idea.

Spring training is traditionally the time for players to prepare for the regular season. Though young players try to come in ready to go, to make a push to make the team, veterans approach it much more gradually, working to get ready for the opening of the season. This is especially true of pitchers, who gradually increase their time in the games.

In this situation, it’s all too conceivable that a veteran player would hurt himself when he tried to extend in full-blown competition. That was the reason Barry Bonds pulled out, after first agreeing to play. Bonds missed most of last season following his knee surgeries, and he will be 42 in July. He’ll have a hard enough time staying healthy in the regular season. If he’d gotten hurt playing in this tournament, that would have affected his season and the Giants in a very big way.

When A’s manager Ken Macha was asked about the tournament, he gave an answer that I think every other manager would have, saying he’d rather have none of his players involved.

There’s also the question of mixed loyalties. Alex Rodriguez, for instance, is of Latin descent, but he was born in New York City.

Sometimes, assignment to teams has been whimsical. A’s pitcher Dan Haren, for instance, was assigned to the team representing The Netherlands. “Has he ever been there?” Macha asked. No – and his ancestry is not Dutch, either.

THE TOURNAMENT won’t have a level playing field, either, because those who have been playing winter ball will be far ahead of those who have not. Winning the tournament will be absolutely meaningless.

But, the curiosity factor will probably mean that it will make money at the gate, and perhaps, it will sell some more baseball merchandise in countries where it is not played on a regular basis. It all comes down to money.

LETTERS: I’ll be updating this later this morning. It helps if you include your home town.

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