By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Starved of funding, given little public attention, and overshadowed by a more popular close cousin, baseball has had it rough in New Zealand, the sport's chief executive concedes.
But all that could be about to change and Baseball New Zealand (BNZ) Chief Executive Ryan Flynn told Reuters he sees the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament in Taiwan as a potential game changer for growth.
The Diamond Blacks, a mix of locals, North Americans with New Zealand heritage, and Australian-based players, were invited to the November 15-18 final qualifying tournament along with the eighth-ranked host country, Thailand and the Philippines.
The winner of that tournament will claim a place at the World Baseball Classic, effectively baseball's World Cup, which is being held in Taiwan, Japan, Puerto Rico and the United States next March, shortly before Major League Baseball's new season begins.
"This is the real deal right now. It doesn't get more real than this," Flynn told Reuters in a telephone interview before the team leaves for six games in Australia en route to Taiwan.
"This is a nation of people who have thrown a ball and swung a bat (and) it was just waiting to blow up, is how I look at it. Everything is in place for this country to be the Dominican Republic, in terms of baseball skills, of the Pacific.
"That's a pretty big comment and standard to reach but we believe it is the perfect storm for baseball in this country."
The sport has enjoyed a remarkable growth spurt since American Flynn, who has a long career in baseball administration, was appointed chief executive in January 2010.
When Flynn arrived in New Zealand, there were 900 registered players in the country. That figure now stood at 6,000, he said, adding that he hoped it could reach as high as 100,000 in 10 years time.
More coaches are being recruited and facilities developed, and importantly, there is growth outside the game's heartland of Auckland. Establishing development pathways, competitions and management systems were major reasons why New Zealand had been invited to Taiwan, Flynn said.
That invitation also puts the sport in the shop window in a country obsessed with rugby.
"We had to prove something first," Flynn said.
"They (Major League Baseball) looked at our potential and what we have done for the last couple of years.
"We jumped past 50-70 nations in one decision (of being invited to the tournament) but they had the vision and we believe they got it right."
Coupled with the sport's development has been news the organization has just received confirmation that it will receive its first centralized funding from Sport New Zealand.
The funding will be welcomed by the sport, which operates on a budget of about NZ$190,000 ($156,712) a year, mostly covered by New Zealand's sports betting agency while Flynn uses business contacts to find additional funding.
"We don't have a ton of funding. We're making do on very little and trying to be clever with the resources we have."
MLB chipped in about NZ$200,000 for the WBC qualifying tournament. BNZ had to find an additional NZ$230,000, with a charitable trust providing $100,000 of that.
Baseball New Zealand's board, however, contains heavyweights of the local business community, with John Fellet, the chief executive of pay television provider Sky Television, and John Hartmann, the chief executive of a major building supplies company, both involved.
"Getting a very strong board is an advantage when you have very limited dollars," Flynn said.
"When you have nothing, and $190,000 a year is really nothing, then you need every other advantage you can get your hands on."
DIAMOND SPORTS DETENTE?
Flynn said that since New Zealand children grew up playing softball and cricket they already had all the basic co-ordination, throwing, fielding and hitting skills required for baseball.
One of the hurdles, however, is the popularity of baseball's cousin softball. The New Zealand men's team are the five-times world champions and the World Championships are scheduled to be held in Auckland next March.
Flynn recognized that New Zealand was out of step with the rest of the world in that softball is principally played at the elite level by women, while baseball is played by men.
While baseball and softball are on friendly terms in New Zealand, there is no formal relationship between the two.
He hoped, however, that a detente between the international baseball and softball federations in an effort to be reinstated to the Olympics in 2020 could be mirrored in New Zealand under a unified "Diamond Sports" umbrella.
"Around the world they don't conflict ...(and) every nation that has a great softball program has a great baseball program.
"They have already come together internationally to get back into the Olympics so why would we be the only country in the world where the two sports haven't come together?"
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)