Caracas — Estadio Universitario de Caracas, home of the professional baseball team Leones del Caracas, has a 20,500 people capacity. This season, the team has sold out every ticket for the games against their arch-enemies, Navegantes del Magallanes, something that had not happened for several years.
Poor attendance at professional sporting events, in decline even before the pandemic, was attributed to low performance and lack of player talent, as well as the leagues’ failure to put on a strong show.
The Universidad Central de Venezuela (UCV) baseball stadium suffered from a lack of audience and advertising in the 2018-2019 season, the only exception being state sponsors, such as Petróleos de Venezuela (Pdvsa), which resumed patronage in 2017 with a $12 million contribution the following year. Even then, fans would not return to watch live games at the stadium.
In previous years, few Major League Baseball (MLB) players had performed in Venezuela, thereby reducing the league’s appeal to fans. Moreover, the meager attendance resulted in fewer food and beverage concessions at the stadiums. Even reporters covering the beat said that in that season — considered one of the worst for the Venezuelan Professional Baseball League (LVBP) — they did not receive the same perks previously granted by the teams.
In mid-August 2019, the MLB adhered to the sanctions imposed by then-president Donald Trump’s government on the Nicolás Maduro administration, and, consequently, against the sponsorship of Pdvsa, and suspended agreements for the exchange of players, technicians and scouts linked to the MLB.
Four months later, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued a license allowing the return of MLB players to Venezuela, but exempting two teams due to their links to chavista mayors and governors: Tigres de Aragua and Navegantes del Magallanes.
The sanctions against these teams were lifted in 2022. It was at an advanced stage of the season, but it would allow all eight teams of the LVBP to hire US players and count with Venezuelan big leaguers.
According to Clifford Nuitter, Venezuela scouting coordinator for the Miami Marlins, lifting the restriction should be “positive” for the local league, resulting in more colorful games boosted by players such as Eduardo Escobar (New York Mets), who brought more depth, value and prominence to the league.
Other relevant players with experience in the MLB are proving their value for teams in the local round-robin tournament. Some of them are Oswaldo Arcia (formerly with the MLB’s Rays, Marlins and Padres), Silvino Bracho (who played for the Detroit Tigers), and Harold Castro (Detroit Tigers).
“Arcia, Silvino Bracho, who are playing despite not having a contract, Harold Castro, who is an interesting guy, all those guys have raised the level of local play in benefit of the previously-sanctioned teams. They managed to move forward and have shown their strength in the round-robin,” Nuitter told Bloomberg Linea.
Bloomberg Línea reached out the LVBP, and the boards of Navegantes del Magallanes and Leones del Caracas for comment, but there were no responses.
A person who works with Leones del Caracas team (who asked not to be identified), said that while less stringent sanctions enabled improvements in the game, the league had already made moves to get sponsorships back as well as more paid audiences, following two difficult seasons plagued by the pandemic.
“The return of some companies translates into an increase in sponsorships”, said the person. “Also, better communication in social media allows us to reach audiences with some degree of economic recovery, bringing fans back.” According to this person, improving economic conditions have boosted some entertainment sectors, although the impact has been unequal.
Venezuelans’ growing purchasing power benefits local baseball, something that will also help players as they prepare for the upcoming World Baseball Classic 2023.
Venezuelan teams thus are back in the game of prestige, with emerging local talent and players seasoned in the US and fewer restrictions to the teams. All of this combines to create momentum for players to be eligible to represent Venezuela in the World Classic.
“The boys want to reach their best shape for the Classic, the new level of the game has improved their performance”, says Nuitter, highlighting the presence of MLB coaches, such as José Alguacil (Kansas City Royals) in the league, all of which sweetens the ears and eyes of MLB executives towards Venezuelan ball.
Nuitter also sees a renovated speech in local media where MLB scouts are guests in TV broadcasts.
“We’re listening to a new baseball language, something the fans really wanted to hear,” he said.