Ed note: This piece is being syndicated at Prospect Insider and Sounder at Heart.
The World Baseball Classic recently concluded. We saw The Dominican Republic defeating Puerto Rico in the final and The United States not doing so well. Not that they ever have fared well in these competitions, but this year's roster induced even less appeal than those before it. Superstar interest seemed at an all-time low. Eligible and healthy players included Mike Trout, Buster Posey and Justin Verlander. Instead, we got the likes of Willie Bloomquist were on the roster. It goes beyond the US, though. Seattle Mariners ace Felix Hernandez was on-board, but backed out after the M's gave him the contents of a few bank vaults.
Then, I see footballers -- including MLS players whose seasons just started -- who excitedly left their clubs to play in conditions like this:
Why is that? Well, I have my thoughts, but I thought I'd first check in with someone who knows about football. I sent an email to Dave Clark, manager of Sounder at Heart. Here is our conversation, in a super sleek email format that you can follow along with!
From: Alex Carson
To: Dave Clark
Date: Thu, Mar 21, 2013 at 8:45 PM
Subject: Interest in International Sporting Events
As a newbie to soccer fandom -- having just started following a few years ago -- one of the things I've come to discover this year is how important playing for one's national team seems to be. It almost seems like to some that it's more important than playing for their club. Freddie Montero pops out as an example.
This is a wild notion to me as a baseball-first guy. After my sport got booted from the Olympics a few years back, MLB's brain trust hatched the idea that became the World Baseball Classic. Reception from players the first time around was pretty decent. The second and third tournaments, however, have seen superstar participation dwindle. Especially amongst pitchers
Now, I know this isn't an apples to apples type of scenario. The WBC doesn't have the stature or history of the World Cup and is played during MLB's pre-season. Players just joining a new club don't want to spend time away so soon. And even bad baseball players make a ton of money, making the risk of injury worth noting.
But MLS players face similar circumstances as baseball players during qualifiers early in the club season. Sounders FC players Eddie Johnson (USA), Obafemi Martins (Nigeria) and Mario Martinez (Honduras) all got the call. They accepted those calls without hesitation.
Martins, for example, flew 18 hours to play 20 minutes for his new club before hopping right back on a plane for his call-up. He literally had zero training time with the Sounders before their huge derby match with Portland, had a cup of coffee with them and then spent the next three days traveling to be with his national club. If an MLB team had just paid the millions toward posting fees and contract for a big Japanese star, for example, I just can't see that player anywhere but in camp with his club. Certainly not whisking off to participate in WBC pool play.
Why do you figure that is? Is the pay in soccer low enough that guys are more inclined to accept their calls? Is there a real, deep-rooted pride in representing your country? Finally, is declining a national call-up common amongst the highly paid superstars of the sport or is it rare to shun your country in soccer?
Dave was kind enough to reply:
From: Dave Clark
To: Alex Carson
Date: Fri, Mar 22, 2013 at 10:14 AM
Subject: Re: Interest in International Sporting Events
With there being so many more pro soccer clubs (let's just say that MLS is the 20th best league, you're talking 360 clubs or more at MLS quality or better) than baseball, it is often a way for a player to expand their marketing power because all interested soccer eyes of a nation will watch a World Cup Qualifier. Friday night's qualifier for the USA will get better ratings -- by far -- than any MLS game this year. During the World Cup, US matches will pull numbers at about 10 Million. I don't think the World Baseball Classic gets that kind of viewership. So there is definitely a financial incentive for players from lower quality leagues to play for their national team. It is not due to the direct pay from US Soccer, but the chance to expand their own marketing power.
But players from the best leagues in the world also show up in strong numbers. That's a different issue. Yes, they also dramatically expand their marketing audience. Someone who hated David Beckham in Manchester United red could love him in the whites of England. It is also the test against the best. There are too few times when players from the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga, the Russian League, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, etc can challenge themselves and play against the best.
One of the early Friday matches in Europe saw Israel draw Portugal. Israel is not a footballing power. Portugal is. Israel's collection of players play at the club level in Israel, France, Spain, England, Germany, Scotland, Russia and Cyprus. All of them got to take the field in a competitive match against the second best player in the world - Cristano Ronaldo. But he wasn't the only world class player on that squad. Portugal's national team is made up of some of the best players who ply their trade in Spain, Portugal, Turkey, Russia, Ukraine, Greece and Germany.
That level of competition is amazing, diverse and incomparable to traditional American sports. Outside of MLB, baseball has a handful of leagues that are merely decent. The top 30 teams in global club soccer would be scattered between a two continents and about a dozen nations. Only through international competition will players be able to face the best. Yet, there is something lacking. Strategy and tactics in international competition are simpler. A weekend like this with two competitive dates may result in a total of three or four training sessions. The 23 players called up won't see each other again for a month or two. At that point, several players will be dropped from the roster and be replaced. Developing play sequences in that situation is quite difficult.
Lastly -- due to the history of international competition -- it is very rare for a player to decline a call. That would only be when they are truly injured. Many American fans are insulted that Landon Donovan is taking time away while there are games that truly matter. Rio Ferdinand felt he was not healthy enough to help England. But on those two squads, only those two turned down the call. Both circumstances were unique and rare. Players will do what they can to represent their nation as well because nationalism is one of the drawing beacons of the sport. So many nations can legitimately claim to be the best in the world at a given time. The only way to test that is through play on the field. Players in any sport are competitors and would not just sit aside and avoid that challenge because of the pride they feel in both club and country.
What Dave said makes a lot of sense. The 30 best baseball teams in the world are in the United States. Almost all of the 750 best baseball players on the planet are playing in the same league. What about the money aspect, then?
Martins is pulling in around $2.5 million per year before endorsements. Fellow SSFC players, who got national team calls, Eddie Johnson and Mario Martinez make more modest wages. In fact, MLS contract rules only allow three players per team (called designated players) to make more than the MLB minimum salary of $490,000. So, none of these guys are making what the upper echelon on baseball players are.
For the Sounders players whose services were requested, all three bolted to join their nations and left their club without some of their most integral players as they go on the road to face the San Jose Earthquakes on Saturday. While this is only a sample of three, these players didn't even consider an alternative
However, not even the highest paid soccer players in the world engage in humming-and-hawing about accepting their call-ups. Lionel Messi (Argentina) makes a hair over $20 million per year. Samuel Eto'o (Cameroon) pulls down roughly $30 million annually. Both of these players joined their national teams this week. Yes, their respective leagues are on international break, meaning those clubs won't play matches sans their stars. However, the injury risk exists still.
Do stars of that magnitude ever opt out due to injury risk? Do their clubs meddle with the players' decision?
According to Dave, clubs actually risk FIFA sanction if the are found to pressure healthy players into skipping international duty. They also could get a poor reputation for doing so and players would opt to not sign there in the future as they truly want to answer those international calls. At times, players may opt to skip friendlies. However, Dave added that missing meaningful matches that count is extremely rare.
Perhaps the most interesting thing Dave mentioned to me:
"The chance to join the pantheon of national legends has an appeal that goes beyond money."
I'm certainly not going to accuse baseball players of not loving their countries deeply, but the extent of that sentiment just isn't one I sense many of them having.
Alex Carson is an MLB writer at Prospect Insider. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter here.