The Value of the Israel Baseball League to Israel and to World Jewry
By Michael J. Leitner
In the summer of 2007, a professional baseball league was started in Israel. The league experienced many difficulties and cancelled its 2008 season, hoping to resume play in 2009. The purpose of this article is to discuss the importance of the league to Israel and to world Jewry and to explore ways to ensure its success. Some of the potential benefits of the league for Israel and for world Jewry are: Encouraging tourism to Israel; Enhancing Israel's image in the U.S. and in other countries; Encouraging aliyah from the U.S.; Encouraging olim from the U.S. to stay in Israel; Providing entertainment for Israelis; Programs for youth, especially disadvantaged youth; and the teaching of American language and culture in Israel through the Israel Baseball League (IBL). In addition, challenges that the fledgling league faces are discussed, as well as ideas and suggestions for maximizing the league's success.
Benefits of the IBL for Israel
Encouraging Tourism to Israel
Promoting tourism to Israel is particularly challenging in times of conflict. However, it is not only the real threats to security that deter potential tourists from coming to Israel, but also the perceived threat of war and terrorist attacks. In the U.S., the main news stories about Israel pertain to terrorist attacks, terrorist threats, war, and political turmoil. The media effectively creates an image of Israel as an unsafe place to visit. Americans who travel to Israel tend to be viewed by friends and family as being crazy for voluntarily going to a dangerous place.
The IBL helped to counteract this negative view of Israel as being an unsafe place to visit. The IBL provided American media outlets with news stories that had nothing to do with security threats. Israel was appearing on the sports pages of American newspapers. It helped to create the impression of Israel being a "normal" country and a safe place to visit. The birth of the IBL made sports headlines in the U.S. like no other sports stories from Israel. Some Americans traveled to Israel in order to see IBL games. Others traveled to Israel to meet some of their former major league Jewish heroes, such as Ron Blomberg, Art Shamsky, and Ken Holtzman, who were IBL managers. There were many other Americans who did not travel to Israel in 2007 but avidly followed the progress of the IBL on the internet, and might come to Israel in the future because of the existence of the IBL.
The IBL is an asset to Israel in terms of encouraging tourists to return to Israel. Many American youth, in Israel for the first time on Birthright or other organized trips, were brought to IBL games during the summer of 2007. For many of these youth, the IBL games were a highlight of their trip. Baseball fans will surely want to return to Israel to see IBL games. Youth that told their friends back in the U.S. about the IBL aroused the interest of many of their friends to visit Israel.
The IBL's effect on tourism isn't limited to American Jews. All baseball fans, regardless of religion, are interested in this league. Adding to this interest is the signing of IBL players by major league teams, including the New York Yankees. The IBL helps to create images of summer baseball in Israel in potential tourists' minds, as opposed to images of danger. Its positive effects on tourism can be significant.
Hasbara Value of the IBL for Israel
The IBL not only helps to promote tourism, but it also helps improve Israel's image in other ways. For example, the IBL included players and coaches from many different countries. They hopefully had positive experiences in Israel and will have good things to say about Israel in their countries. In addition, media reports about the IBL in their countries also help to promote a positive image of Israel in their countries.
In the summer of 2006, Israel was involved in a war with Hizbullah. Most news stories about Israel that summer were focused on the war. Instead of war stories, the media was reporting stories about the IBL in the summer of 2007. These stories helped to change the image of Israel from a country embroiled in conflict to a normal, fun-loving, westernized, modern nation. In summary, the IBL indirectly serves as a great public relations asset for Israel.
Encouraging North American Aliyah
Related to the IBL benefits to Israel of positive publicity and promoting tourism, the IBL can also encourage aliyah from North America. There are many things that prospective olim fret about giving up if they were to move to Israel. But, with the establishment of the IBL, professional baseball is one thing that olim will not have to give up if they move to Israel. A seemingly small factor like that can perhaps tip the scales for those who are having trouble making the decision about whether or not to make aliyah.
Ideally, visitors from North America will have positive experiences in Israel and become motivated to move to Israel. The IBL can provide some additional positive experiences that can increase the motivation to make aliyah. It also can help young people having difficulty defending their decision to make aliyah to their parents. The presence of the IBL contributes to Israel's image as a safe, normal place to live. It can help ease the minds of worried parents of olim.
Encouraging North American Olim to Stay
Unfortunately, a significant proportion of olim from North America return to the U.S. and Canada after living in Israel for a period of time. There are a variety of reasons for olim to leave Israel, but certainly homesickness, making friends, and nostalgia for "the old country" can be contributing factors. Going to an IBL game can be a great cure for homesickness for an oleh from North America. Being at an IBL game is like taking a mini-vacation to America. Being able to attend these games can give olim the little taste of American life that some olim might occasionally crave.
In addition, American olim wishing to meet other English-speakers will find that IBL games are a great place to meet other people from America and make new friends. Obviously, in many ways, the IBL is no competition for the major leagues in most categories, but in terms of a friendly atmosphere, the IBL would probably win. Fans that have never met before strike up conversations and exchange phone numbers. It's not something that usually occurs at major league ballparks. Being able to meet and talk with other Americans and perhaps make new friends can help encourage olim to stay.
Providing Entertainment for Israelis
Israelis enjoy their professional basketball and soccer leagues, but these leagues do not operate in the summer. Other than the new beach soccer league that has games on Saturdays, the IBL is the only professional sports league in Israel during the summer. It is an inexpensive form of entertainment, costing less than the price of a ticket to the movies. Baseball is also unique in terms of its frequency of games. Except for Shabbat, games are played every day. You don't have to worry too much about the schedules. During the season, there is a game on almost every day.
Israelis love new forms of entertainment. Baseball is new in Israel. It has entertainment value in and of itself and also as a curiosity. The games have a wholesome family atmosphere, but it is also a fun outing for teenagers and young adults. Because of the slow pace of the game and all of the breaks between innings, baseball is a game that allows for a great deal of socialization to take place. If not for the love of the game itself, the IBL games are entertaining as a social experience.
Teaching American Language and Culture
The IBL games are a real bargain because for the price of admission, a free lesson in American language and culture is included! Israelis wanting to improve their English and learn more about American culture can accomplish these goals by attending IBL games regularly.
The rules and etiquette of baseball also help to bring a taste of American language and culture to Israelis. It is better than going to the theater to watch an American movie, because it is interactive and questions can be asked. Those that would like to see Israeli society become more westernized would be pleased to see baseball games being played in Israel.
The IBL programs and outreach for youth can further spread American language and culture in Israel. The IBL conducted some outreach and workshops for youth in Israel, and more is planned. These programs are particularly beneficial for youth who are immigrants from countries like Ethiopia, as they are able to excel at the sport because they are beginners at the sport just like all other Israeli youth.
Challenges Facing the IBL
Although there are many benefits that the IBL offers Israel, there are many challenges the league faces in its attempt to succeed. One challenge is that the game is strange and new to Israelis. The rules of baseball seem complicated and don't make sense to some people. If people have difficulty understanding the game, they will be less likely to enjoy it and attend more games.
Also, the game seems slow to many Israelis. Unlike basketball and soccer, there is no time clock. Adding to this problem is that few Israeli adults or children play baseball, adding to the difficulty in understanding and appreciating the game.
Another challenge faced by the league in its first year is that the fan base was small and there wasn't much home team loyalty or enthusiasm generated, with the exception of perhaps one or two teams. There was a lack of knowledge about the league, even among some English speaking Israelis!
Yet another challenge faced by the league is that there are many games played per week. A sports team that only plays once or twice a week has a less challenging task to draw fans to its games than a team that plays almost every day!
The IBL faces many challenges, but there are some improvements and changes that can be made that will enhance its chances of being successful. Perhaps the most important improvement would be to only play night games. It is simply too hot at 5 p.m. to draw fans to sit and watch a baseball game. There is not enough seating in the shade, but even those seats that are in the shade are too hot at that time. In addition, many people are still at work or are commuting at that time. Night games starting at 8 or 9 p.m. would draw more fans as Israelis enjoy being outdoors at night in the summer. A later starting time would also give people a chance to come home from work, relax, and then feel ready to go out.
Another idea related to scheduling is to eliminate the 12 noon Friday games and replace them with Saturday night games starting at 9 or 9:30 p.m., well after Shabbat. Israelis who do not work on Friday are often busy shopping, cooking, or doing other chores on Friday in preparation for Shabbat. These games do not seem to draw well. However, Israelis love to go out Saturday night. Games played Saturday night would surely draw many more fans than the Friday day games.
Enhanced concessions could also help draw more people to the games. The IBL could advertise "American-style barbeque," or "Bring your family for dinner" in order to draw people to the games. The Atlanta Braves in the U.S. even offers "All you can eat seats," a deal where for one price, you get a seat and a voucher that enables you to eat as much as you want. Perhaps that's not such a good idea for Israel!
However, live music and dancing is surely a good idea for enhancing baseball games in Israel. The IBL had many interesting entertainment ideas for its games but was only able to implement a few of them. Having entertainment and different themes will attract people to the games that normally wouldn't be inclined to attend sporting events and make it more fun for everyone. There was Israeli folk dancing at two of the games last year, and it was well received. In addition to having audience participation in folk dancing, dance troupes of all ages could be invited to perform at the games.
A great deal of public relations work is needed to increase the public's awareness of the league. There were many posters and ads for the Israel beach soccer league last summer, but almost none to be seen for the IBL.
More attractive seating is needed for the stadiums and good lighting so that all of the games can be played at night. Signs are also needed to direct people from the highways and major streets to the stadiums. Sponsors could put their ads on the outfield walls as is done in minor league stadiums in the U.S. This revenue could be used for improvements in the stadiums, including scoreboards and video replay screens.
Activities and contests between innings, especially those geared toward children would stimulate interest in baseball among local youth. There could be skill contests such as baseball throwing for distance, speed, and accuracy, and hitting contests. There could even be some instruction in basic baseball skills for children between innings.
In addition, clinics held during the week in various cities to teach Israeli children the game of baseball would generate interest in the sport. Contests could be held where the winners would get to sit in the dugout with their team for a game or maybe even be a "ball boy or boy girl." In the long term, skills need to be developed among youth so that there can be more quality Israeli players on the teams in the future. Having more Israeli players on the teams will contribute to greater interest in the IBL.
Tour groups from overseas should be brought to the games. Special "baseball tours" could even be organized from the U.S. Locally, summer camps could bring their children as a special outing. Companies that offer trips and events for their employees could be encouraged to bring their employees to IBL games. Organizations such as AACI (Americans and Canadians in Israel), the Wingate Institute (Israel's national sports center), and the Zinman College (Israel's college for the study of physical education and sport) should be worked with as closely as possible to promote the sport.
The competition between the cities that the teams represent needs to be increased to arouse interest in the games. Perhaps the municipal governments of these cities could assist with attempts to increase identification with their home team.
The rule changes incorporated into IBL games, such as shortening games to seven innings and deciding tie games with a home run derby were helpful in making the game more appealing to the Israeli fans who would get bored with a long game. If at all possible, other rule changes should be incorporated to speed up the game, such as putting pitchers on a 20 second timer or maybe limiting the number of times a pitcher can throw to first base.
In 2007, the IBL had some excellent, almost major league level pitchers. Because the games were only seven innings, many games were low scoring, as the starting pitchers could last all or most of the game and the batters didn't get the opportunity to bat against the relief pitchers that might not have been as strong. Perhaps for future seasons, the IBL could place more emphasis on signing high quality hitters as opposed to high quality pitchers, so that the games will be higher scoring and more interesting to audiences who are new to baseball.
Also, because most Israelis are not familiar with all of the rules and nuances of the game of baseball, more explanations should be offered to the fans before and during the game, and between innings. The game is much more enjoyable when you understand what is going on.
Starting a professional baseball league in Israel was a massive undertaking. Keeping it going and making it successful will be challenging. However, the potential benefits of the IBL for Israel and world Jewry are enormous. Hopefully, the incorporation of some of the suggestions discussed in this article can help the league to succeed for many years to come.
from the November 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine