NEW YORK — The World Baseball Classic returns Monday for its fourth edition, growing slowly yet still far from rising to the prominence of soccer's World Cup or the Olympics.
South Korea hosts Israel at the opener of the 16-nation tournament in Seoul, and the Dominican Republic starts its title defense March 9 against Canada in Miami.
"The tournament remains very much in the early innings of its development," Chris Park, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of growth, strategy and international, said Thursday at a Yankee Stadium news conference. "Our ultimate ambition is to watch and supervise this tournament as it matures into a truly global platform for our game and a real competitor with the top international tournaments around the world."
First-round games also are being played at Tokyo and Guadalajara, Mexico; and second-round games at San Diego and Tokyo. The championship round is at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles from March 20-22.
The United States, which failed to finish better than fourth under managers Buck Martinez, Davey Johnson and Joe Torre, is led this year by Jim Leyland and starts play March 10 versus Colombia in Miami.
The 2013 championship on the MLB Network averaged 843,000 viewers; it was the most-watched sporting event in the Dominican Republic in at least a decade, averaging an 11.2 rating on CDN. And in Puerto Rico, there was a combined 39.0 rating for telecasts on Telemundo, MLB Network and ESPN Deportes.
"Let's see if their success will translate to more people watching," said broadcaster Al Leiter, a pitcher on the 2006 U.S. team.
The tournament is run by MLB and the players' association and games will be televised in the U.S. on MLB Network and ESPN Deportes. In total, 171 countries will receive WBC broadcasts, and more than 50 sponsors have reached agreements.
Revenue is forecast to top $100 million for the first time. Still, that is less than 2 percent of the $5.5 billion projected by FIFA for next year's World Cup in Russia.
While the World Cup is soccer's ultimate event, many players decline to participate in the WBC, which is played while their clubs are at spring training ahead of season openers that start April 2.
Japan won the initial tournament in 2006 and repeated as champion in 2009, but no current Japanese in MLB will be at the WBC.
"It comes down to a personal decision, and they have all of these competing interests that they have to contend with in terms of their own preparation and length of the season," players' union senior labor counsel Ian Penny said.
Major leaguers on 25-man rosters were not allowed at the last Olympic baseball tournament in 2008 and they aren't likely to be at the 2020 Tokyo Games, given MLB's unwillingness to interrupt its season. That leaves the WBC as the sport's international showcase.
Soccer's World Cup usually is played at the end of most European club seasons — the 2022 tournament in Qatar will be an anomaly, shifted to Nov. 21-Dec. 18 because of the summer heat.
Baseball prefers preseason, even though it means pitch limits in the WBC because arm strength is still building.
"Every time you start to drill down into a particular time of year and look at the logistics and look at the pros and cons, what sounds like an easy fix suddenly becomes a lot more complicated," Penny said.
A postseason tournament that starts in early-to-mid November would leave pitchers from eliminated clubs waiting around to resume competition.
"You don't make the playoffs and your last game is Oct. 1 — you have to wait around for five weeks to keep throwing to get ready for a WBC that you're not going to want to embarrass yourself," Leiter said. "Impossible."