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Out or Safe? MLB Athletes May Not Be in the Olympics

22 Mar, 2017

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
In a Situation Uncomfortably Similar to that of NHL and Ice Hockey, Planners of Summer Baseball Events May Need to Rethink Schedules if Players from Other Leagues Are Drawn to Tokyo

Who’s on first in Tokyo? It may not be anyone from Major League Baseball.

The summer Olympics in Tokyo are edging closer, but MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has raised doubts over whether players from the world's top league will compete at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Manfred claims owners would not support a break in the season that would be necessitated by an MLB shutdown to let top players out of the country for the duration of the Games.

An article in Inside The Games notes that Manfred’s ideas are similar to those of MLB Players Association (MLBPA) head Tony Clark, who warned the impact on the MLB schedule is the biggest obstacle. (The Tokyo 2020 Olympics run from July 24 to August 9, which would substantially affect the pro baseball season.)

"No matter how you put the event together there would be a significant amount of Major League players who would be away from their teams," Manfred was quoted as saying by The Japan Times. "It would alter the competition in our everyday game.  I do not believe our owners would support some sort of a break in our season."

So – without MLB, how would America field a team? More than likely by using the most promising players outside of that league. And while USA Baseball’s pro team is comprised of MLB players, there remain plenty of options, including USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, as well as the 18U National Team and others in the NGB’s roster (including those on teams for the 17U National Development Program, and perhaps those even younger) In addition, there are Minor League Baseball (MiLB) clubs throughout the U.S.; whether and how these could be employed – since they comprise the MLB farm systemremains to be seen.

However, sports planners need to note that use of any players might have an impact on play schedules throughout the summer.

Of course, Manfred hasn’t closed the door entirely on MLB participation. In the Inside The Games article, he claims there have not been any "substantive discussions" with the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) about the participation of MLB players, but added he is "sure that those conversations will take place".

"We have not even been informed about what exactly the format of the event is going to be, how many days would be involved and whatnot," he said. "I am more than prepared to hear what the event is going to look like, describe to our owners what our options are with respect to participation in that type of event, and we’ll make a decision from there."

It would not be the first time a national governing body has balked at the idea of having its first string gutted to use in the Olympics. The National Hockey League (NHL) is facing a similar conundrum, with officials citing many reasons why they should not (or cannot) afford to allow players to participate in Tokyo; in fact, with only a few modifications, these objections could pertain to MLB as well:

Disruption: With the Olympics on, the NHL is forced to shut down. In 2014, play stopped between February 9-24 for the Sochi Games.

Financial Loss to Cities Fielding NHL Teams: Having key players out, and having the NHL on hiatus, has been shown to cause financial stress in affected markets, according to the NHL. In addition, they noted, fans can quickly grow out of the habit of attending games and just make the decision to catch them on TV when play resumes.

Injury: Every player at the Olympics is critical to his NHL team. In a parity league, an injury can be the difference between making or missing the playoffs. Failing to advance to the postseason can cost a franchise millions of dollars in lost revenue.

And things continue to look dire for NHL participation, by the way; an article in USA TODAY noted a statement by Commissioner Gary Bettman that no inroads had been made on discussions with the IOC.

“I think the overwhelming sentiment of the teams is that it is very disruptive with the season,” Bettman told the newspaper, describing team owners’ position as being “somewhere between fatigue and negativity.”

Bettman said there are no meetings scheduled with the International Olympic Committee, and he said there is no reason for him to set any final date to make a decision.

“Unless something changes, we’re not going,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. “We’ve said that consistently for three months. So there’s nothing new about that.”

Baseball may well follow NHL’s lead – unless there is flexibility at the Olympic level. When contacted by Inside The Games regarding the matter, a World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) spokesperson confirmed “the format and other technical details have not been finalized…. WBSC’s 2020 bid was to keep Olympic baseball as compact as possible, reducing it from two weeks in past Games to five or six days, to facilitate player availability. WBSC is in discussions with Tokyo 2020 and awaiting confirmation of the final proposed venue plan for Olympic baseball and softball events, and this will shape the format and length of the tournament.”

A shorter schedule for baseball might be more conducive to MLB participation; while players might miss the opening and/or closing ceremonies for the Games, they would be able to represent their countries without wreaking as much havoc on the regular season schedule.

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