Is Cuba about to throw Major League Baseball and the Obama administration a curve?
The application process has begun for governments, sports federations, or other groups to submit bids to host games in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial tourney created by MLB and sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF). It is baseball’s fledgling version of soccer’s World Cup, where MLB players are allowed to represent their native lands.
The 2009 WBC generated huge TV ratings for both ESPN and ESPN Deportes, and with expansion of the field of participating countries from 16 to 28, the expectation is that interest and revenues will be even higher, and adding to the interest of the event is speculation that Cuba may make a bid to host some of the games in Havana.
That prospect would raise thorny political questions and generate instant controversy that would play out against the backdrop of the United States' decades-old travel and trade restrictions against Cuba and could test recent changes to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations related to Cuba, initiated by the Obama administration.
It is hardly the feel-good buzz that MLB hopes to generate with the 2013 games. Decisions about host sites will be determined prior to the November 2012 presidential election, so the last thing the Obama administration will want is to rile up hard-line Cuban Americans in Florida and elsewhere who don't want eased relations with Cuba. The notion of the Cuban team playing in the tournament on U.S. soil appears to be well-settled. But talk now of Cuba potentially hosting games—as early as 2013 or also possibly in 2017—raises some potentially new concerns related to the U.S.-Cuba sanctions, says a Treasury official—including whether a U.S. team could travel to Cuba to play there.
The competition for selecting sites for the WBC is to conclude in September for a newly established set of qualifying-round games, and in December for the main tournament competition. The Dominican Republic has been early out of the gate in applying to host one of the rounds of the tournament. An MLB official confirmed that, as yet, Cuba has not submitted an application to host any games, but acknowledged there has been some “chatter” about that possibility. Cuba is a baseball-crazy country, and the national teams fielded by the Caribbean island nation of about 11 million have been perennial powerhouses at international events.
But Cuba was almost excluded in 2006 from just having a team in the inaugural WBC. Treasury initially ruled that Cuba—the then-undisputed champion of amateur international baseball—could not even participate because the prize money would violate the U.S.' trade embargo. Then-President George W. Bush’s administration eventually reversed that decision, granting the Cuban team the special license it needed to get around the sanctions designed to prevent the government of Cuban leader Fidel Castro from receiving U.S. currency. The reversal occurred after Cuba said it would donate any profits it received to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. But it also came after international pressure, including threats by the IBAF to withdraw its sanction of the event, and by Puerto Rico to withdraw as a host site if Cuba wasn’t allowed to participate.
Under a section of the Cuban Assets Control Regulations—which actually represents a loosening of previous Bush-era rules—a specific license must be granted on a case-by-case basis for U.S. travel to Cuba for participation in public performances, clinics, workshops, other athletic and non-athletic competitions, and exhibitions” and these events must be “open for attendance.” In addition, all profits from the event would have to be donated to a nongovernmental groups or U.S.-based charities.
But there may be some question about whether the MLB and WBC organizers would even want games played in Cuba, given the financial hurdles it would present, especially if television revenues are required to be donated. Also ticket prices would likely have to be set low so that the corporate ticket packages that generate the most profits would likely be non-existent.
“The stark pesos and centavos realities of a third-world economy simply will not allow the corporate MLB version of the sport to be staged in a location like Cuba,” wrote Peter C. Bjarkman, a Cuba baseball historian, in an article appearing on Havana Times.org in May.
This article appears in the July 1, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.