World Baseball Challenge postponed until 2016

A lack of sponsors stepping up to the plate has forced organizers of the 2015 World Baseball Challenge to postpone the event until 2016.

Rick Pattie, chair of the WBC, said $100,000 needed to be raised by May 31. As of Sunday, only half of that target had been reached.

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"Rather than jeopardize the integrity of the tournament and end up in debt, the decision was made to postpone it until 2016," said Pattie on Monday. "We're hugely disappointed. The public support has been awesome and we had people asking about tickets. (But) the sponsorship money was not there. We rely on the resource industry and with layoffs at those companies, they couldn't justify the expense. The downturn in the economy kicked us, as did the Canada Winter Games."

The overall budget was about $600,000.

In 2013, WBC organizers put a call out to the community for last-minute sponsorship, and businesses came forward in time prior to the tournament.

Pattie said a bit of a profit was made that year and any outstanding debt was paid off with enough to get started in planning for 2015.

This year, organizers were still seeking a title sponsor for the two-week tournament that was supposed to take place at Citizen Field from Aug. 14-23.

Five teams - Canada, Japan, the U.S., Cuba and the Bahamas - that were ready to play ball were notified through email of the postponement Sunday night after the 12-member organizing committee met that afternoon.

The City of Prince George and the baseball community have also been notified.

The calibre of competition at the tournament is second to none. Fifteen players who suited up in the three previous tournaments are now playing Major League Baseball.

Cuban teams have won the past two WBC tournaments. In 2011, the Cuban national B team beat Chinese Taipei 10-5 in the final. The Cuban club included first baseman Jose Abreu, now with the Chicago White Sox. Abreu was an all-star in 2014 and the American League rookie of the year.

In 2013, the Ciego de Avila Tigres of Cuba trounced JX-Eneos of Japan 14-4 in a mercy-rule-shortened championship game. The Cuban team that was supposed to be here this year was the Pinar del Rio Vegueros, champions of the 2015 Cuban National Series.

In the first WBC tournament held in Prince George in 2009, a star-studded U.S. college all-star team beat Germany in the final. The U.S. team that year included pitchers Sonny Gray, Gerrit Cole and Drew Pomeranz; infielders Christian Colon, Kolten Wong and Brad Miller; outfielder Michael Choice and catcher Yasmani Grandal, all of whom now play in the the major leagues.

This year's American team was a selection of players from the Northwest Collegiate Baseball League, like the team that finished third in 2013. Many of the players were from junior colleges.

The Japanese team was supposed to be the winner of the Inter-City (Industrial) League, which hasn't yet been determined. The Langley Blaze senior team, winners of the 2014 Baseball Canada national title, would have represented Canada.

"It's the same great level (of play) as the three previous tournaments," said Jim Swanson, who co-chaired the first three events and now serves as a team liaison. "It's international, not national. It's at that level. It's a pretty significant event. It's odd to look at a map and say, 'That happens in Prince George?' It's a testament to the people. It's an all-volunteer effort."

The Prince George Youth Baseball Association has always been a huge part of the WBC, helping out with everything from field work to bat boys, said PGYBA president Brenda Astorino.

"My son has participated in two World Baseball Challenges and 'inspired' is the best word to use for these young baseball players to interact with these high-calibre athletes," she said, adding the PGYBA is looking forward to helping out wherever it can to bring the event back in 2016. "...As long as we continue to have this great event, postponing for one year will not have an impact other than we have to wait until 2016 to see it again."

The current committee will regroup and rework its marketing package and start again in the fall. Fundraising will also be undertaken in the next 14 months.

The three World Baseball Challenge events held in Prince George have contributed $7 million to the local economy, Pattie said. Teams stayed at downtown hotels and the money generated stayed in Prince George.

"We're highly appreciative of support in the community," said Pattie. "We're excited about 2016. It'll be just as good next year."

Tourism Prince George has sponsored the event since 2011 and is aware of the impact it has on the local economy.

The tournament attracts about 20,000 people from around the region to the city, and if they spend $100 each, it adds up, said Erica Hummel, Tourism Prince George's chief executive officer.

"It has been a big event that's pretty significant," she said. "We really look forward to this event but I think because of the Canada Winter Games, the community sponsorship has been drained. We look forward to sponsoring them again next year."

Organizers hadn't yet started their volunteer drive for 2015, with about 125 people needed.

Pattie said people who want to get involved in the 2016 tournament are welcome to help and can contact organizers through the website, www.worldbaseball.ca or on their Facebook page.

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