Last month, the all-American Pastime has crossed the pond – at least briefly. How did it do? And does it herald the growth of baseball facilities there?
Yes, the game was quite a hit – but then again, it’s (ahem) a whole new ballgame over there. And the novelty factor was a big help. According to the Associated Press, 70 percent of the tickets for the Yankees-Red Sox games were sold in Britain, with the remaining 30 percent sold in the United States. Red Sox season-ticket holders purchased an average of 5,831 seats per game and Yankees fans picked up 4,752 tickets during the presale.
All pretty awesome, but what does it mean?
Maybe…not much. Wikipedia tells us baseball is a minor sport in England, with about only 3,000 participants. Additionally, that source notes, “the sport is governed by the British Baseball Federation, which runs a multi-tier national league. The national team has taken part in international competitions. There are also independent regional leagues, and about 20 universities field teams. The sole purpose-built facility in the UK is at Farnham Common, Buckinghamshire. There is also a youth baseball academy.”
In fact, the biggest impediment to the sport’s growth in England (other than a widespread lack of interest in the game, since it doesn’t receive much coverage) seems to be a lack of facilities. And that might keep exhibition games from the MLB to a minimum.
When asked why he did not think the game had a future abroad, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred cited as one reason the challenge of finding stadiums that would work for baseball without having heavy alterations or reconstruction. “Playing in Europe presents some challenges that the NFL doesn’t have,’’ he said – a reference to the fact that NFL games have been contested in England. “It’s a lot easier for them to play inside soccer stadiums. It’s virtually impossible for us.’’
The bat and ball sport of cricket is far more popular in England than baseball; in fact, the only other sport comparable to baseball in terms of rules is a game known as “rounders,” which is popular among schoolchildren (particularly girls), although it is contested on the international level.
The fact that baseball (and softball for that matter) were picked up for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo and dropped from the 2024 Games in Paris also will not do much to light a fire in the hearts of the world. But it’s likely the sports will be picked up for the 2028 Games in Los Angeles. Whether the sports will be featured in Olympics beyond that point is unknown and will depend upon the host city’s preferences. While it’s far too early for a host to be picked for 2032, for example, a multitude of cities threw their hats into the ring already; a list of prospective hosts can be found here.
MLB, for its part, seems to be setting its sights on developing the sport in other countries. According to Baseball America, MLB, having worked hard to develop a following in China, has now set its sights on India.
Jim Small, MLB senior vice president of international business, believes the popularity of cricket is a point that will play in baseball’s favor. In addition, he notes, among the potential market of a population of more than 1 billion people, 90 percent have a connected device in their hands. The strong possibility that a player could make the major leagues means that the population could stream games – and find them understandable and relatable.
“There are very few sports played above the waist,” Small told Baseball America. “And when we go and see the people that we’re supporting in baseball there, we see tremendous athletes who can throw and catch and hit. They may not have played a lot of baseball. They may have used the wrong foot to touch the base when they turn a double play, but they have the ability to throw a laser beam to first base. And that’s a really attractive thing.”
Side note: Trying to tell a lifelong cricket player they’re using the wrong foot to touch the base in a strange new game is easier said than done – and could come off very wrong. But if baseball can manage to take off in India, it could continue its growth as MLB intends.