MLB is ready for its long-awaited European debut and to find out if the sport will be a hit across the pond
In 1993, minor leaguers from the New York Mets and Boston Red Sox landed in London for what was to be a four-day event featuring the first professional baseball games in the country at The Oval, an international cricket ground that opened in 1845.
Beguiled by a particularly wet October in a country known for its gray skies, they stayed for eight days and played once.
More than a quarter-century later, baseball is finally going back — weather be damned — with two games between the Yankees and Red Sox scheduled for this Saturday and Sunday at London Stadium.
Watching the rain pelt a tarp at the stadium that hosted the 2012 Summer Games and is the current home of English Premier League club West Ham United, the man who has spent almost a month wedging a baseball field into the site thought back earlier this month to that first trip to the United Kingdom, and why it has taken so long for MLB to return.
The NFL has played a regular-season game in London each year since 2007 and plans four games there this year. And yet baseball, with no less cultural claim to the continent and every intent to make one, has watched from the bench as the NFL planted its flag.
“It’s hard because the European market is predominately soccer facilities, and in most of those our dimensions just won’t fit,” said Murray Cook, a field and facility consultant who first went abroad with baseball for a USSR tour in 1989. “We might get 240 or 250 [feet] down the line. It just wouldn’t go. The only reason it works here is because at Olympic stadiums they have these large tracks that let you orient it to make it fit. Or fit pretty darn close, anyway.”
Truth be told, league executives expected faster progress in Europe. As early as 2002, MLB’s international division began work on a plan to take major league games there, emboldened by the success of two games in Tokyo between the Mets and Cubs in 2000.
Jim Small, MLB’s current head of international, remembers scouting locations in London, Rome, Paris, Munich, Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Paul Archey, a sports marketing executive who headed MLB’s international unit from 1999 to 2015, estimates that during his tenure he toured at least 30 stadiums in Europe.
Shortly after the successful launch of the World Baseball Classic in 2006, Archey presented ownership with a plan that would take an MLB series to a different European city each year. As early as 2011, there were conversations about taking the Red Sox and Yankees to London.
“We had that plan in place and wanted to play over there,” said Archey, now chief operating officer of JMI Sports. “Ownership wanted to play over there. But the problem was facilities. It was hard to find a stadium that could accommodate baseball that checked all the boxes — right configuration, right time of year, right money. They have that now, and it’s great.”
Geometry may have been the biggest hurdle, but it wasn’t the only one.
The Red Sox not only will give up two home games, but two of their more lucrative home games. MLB declined to discuss the financials of the arrangement, but clubs that play outside the U.S. typically have been made whole for the home games that they lost, based on realistically projected net revenue for that specific game.
Prior to the collective-bargaining agreement reached in 2016, each trip MLB took abroad had to be negotiated individually with the MLB Players Association, which held a 50% stake in the profit or loss from games played internationally. Under the current agreement, players agreed to a schedule of international games each year through 2021, including the games in London this year and two more next year, when the Cubs will play the Cardinals. Players will receive $60,000 each for trips to London or Asia, four times more than they will make when they go to the Dominican Republic, Mexico or Puerto Rico.
In order to break even, the two London games must generate enough revenue to buy out the two Red Sox home games and underwrite the cost to convert the stadium, as well as cover about $3 million in player costs.
MLB would not discuss specifics of its arrangement with its London promoter, CSM Sport & Entertainment. But on previous international trips, it negotiated guarantees from promoters, who then assumed most of the financial risk for the event. Along with tickets and local broadcast rights — BBC will stream the games — event revenue includes U.S. TV rights, which went to ESPN and Fox. Figures were not disclosed, but international play is not included in MLB’s U.S. media deals.
“It’s a first-ever event happening in a country that we’ve never played in, in a venue that’s not built for baseball,” said Barbara McHugh, who as senior vice president of marketing for MLB oversees presentation of the event. “It’s certainly large at scale. And there’s no manual for how you present baseball at this scale in London.”
Two years ago on the Fourth of July, retired MLB all-stars Cliff Floyd, Shawn Green and Carlos Pena whacked baseballs over and into a crowd in London’s Hyde Park, an interesting twist on the Home Run Derby. The inclusion of two cricketers from England’s national team helped draw 20,000 people to the event and 1 million views of three minutes or more to a Twitter-promoted stream.
It was the brainchild of Charlie Hill, a former management consultant MLB hired in 2015 as managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, working out of London. When Hill took the job, he often heard that the journey to become a fan begins with education; that MLB needed to seize upon every opportunity to explain the rules of baseball to potential fans.
“The question you have to ask then is: Why should they sit down and listen?” Hill said. “Why should they care? Why should someone want to know the rules of baseball? If you don’t give them a good reason, then you’ve kind of lost before you started.”
The home run derby clicked because it was baseball, stripped down to its easily digestible core: bat meeting ball, with the spoils to those who hit it far the most times.
“It’s difficult, as a part of a group that are the responsible custodians for baseball, to begin to ask yourself tough questions,” Hill said. “Like: Does our sport, in its current iteration, have sufficient footholds for fans to get into it? Do they understand it? Do they care?”
The one aspect of baseball already cemented in the U.K. actually has little to do with bats, balls or Bellinger. Thanks to fashion trends, MLB will sell apparel to about 5 million Brits this year. Of those, about 1.5 million identify as avid sports fans, making them the most likely target to graduate from gear to game.
The group already consuming MLB content on a daily basis is considerably smaller. “Tens of thousands” watch live games or view condensed game highlights, Hill said.
The hope, of course, is that playing a game in London will move the larger group toward true fandom.
With the game on the horizon, MLB has ramped up its grassroots efforts, expanding a Softball 60 program that this spring provided MLB caps and jerseys, along with mitts, bats and other equipment, to 30 London companies that committed to play in a six-week league, with game lengths and rules adapted to fit beginners. Because the 30-team league filled quickly, MLB added pickup games at four parks on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.
“These games are going to be a lightning bolt to create attention and exposure for what we do,” Small said. “But if we only did the games we would be a failure. We need to do more than that.”