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WBC sees big crowds amid jump in revenue

MAJOR League Baseball is facing a tough season due to the recession, but its World Baseball Classic is showing strong early returns with larger crowds, TV ratings and more sponsorship dollars than in the past.

The WBC is a 39-game tournament in which 16 teams from such countries as the United States, Venezuela, South Korea and the Netherlands finished a first round of games on Thursday. In the inaugural event in 2006, Japan topped Cuba in the finals.

While the 2006 tournament was played entirely in the US, this year's first-round games were played in Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico and Japan. Attendance rose 38 percent.

In addition to higher TV ratings on ESPN, sponsorship revenue jumped more than 50 percent, MLB President Bob DuPuy said.

"Given the economy, given that we expanded into four international venues for the first round - and obviously had some trepidation about doing that for the first time - we could not be happier with how things have broken," he said.

All-time high

US sports leagues, including baseball, have been hurt by the recession, which has led to cutbacks in consumer and corporate spending on tickets and sponsorships. Baseball saw revenue hit a record US$6.5 billion last year, but attendance slipped from its all-time high in 2007.

MLB officials froze their 2009 budgets and warned clubs not to overprice tickets for the coming season, which begins in April. Two-thirds of the 30 teams responded by maintaining or cutting prices.

DuPuy said MLB officials are relieved that attendance at spring training games in Florida and Arizona is even with last year so far, but acknowledged season-ticket renewals are down.

The WBC is a good sign that baseball can still attract eyeballs, however, he said.

The US-Canada game in Toronto drew 42,000, more than all but six of the Toronto Blue Jays' 81 home games last year, DuPuy said.

The TV ratings in Japan for the Japan-Korea game, which included Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki, were higher than the Beijing Olympics or any other sports event since the 2006 WBC finals, he said.

In addition to the higher sponsorship revenue, MLB more than doubled the number of sponsors for the event to 56 from 26 in 2006.


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