London — London seems like a no-brainer for a European road trip. Paris is all but assured next. Why not throw in Germany and the Netherlands?
Major League Baseball has big plans for Europe, starting with an English reintroduction to the sport this weekend when the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs play a two-game series in London.
The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox featured in London four years ago, smashing six home runs in a European debut for MLB that was higher scoring — the Yankees won 17-13 — than the NFL’s first one in London in 2007, when the New York Giants beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10.
Though the coronavirus pandemic threw a curveball — the Cards-Cubs series was slated for 2020 — the success of the World Baseball Classic has provided a boost. Britain won a game at the tournament for the first time and found a star in Seattle Mariners prospect Harry Ford, who was born in Atlanta but has parents from the U.K.
“The U.K. has really been identified for us, London in particular, as the jumping off point for us to get into Europe,” Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer, told The Associated Press. “We feel like we proved that out in 2019. By coming back and having a really strong showing … we’re going to have the opportunity to really make some headway for growth both in the U.K. and throughout Europe.”
Britain is MLB’s biggest market in Europe in terms of broadcast revenue, merchandise sales and subscribers to digital products, though it trails the likes of Mexico, Japan, South Korea, China and Australia.
Audience research company GWI’s data showed that interest in baseball among British sports fans increased from 4% in 2019 to 5.9% last year, the league said. It added that MLB Europe’s social media channels since the 2019 series have more than tripled their followers to 452,000.
The New York-Boston series, a two-game set that drew nearly 119,000 fans to London Stadium, was a driver in the BBC signing a deal last fall to begin broadcasting a handful of games, including the London series, each season. MLB’s lead broadcaster in the U.K., the pay-TV service BT Sport, last year renewed its agreement to broadcast 15 games per season.
“We feel like the U.K. offers us a good model for growth in the Europe market,” Marinak said.
MLB’s first regular-season game outside of the United States — including Puerto Rico — and Canada was in 1996 when the New York Mets and San Diego Padres played a three-game series in Monterrey, Mexico. The league has also staged games in Tokyo and Australia. Earlier this season, Mexico City hosted a two-game series between the Padres and San Francisco Giants.
The Yankees are lobbying to play in Paris in 2025. The league hasn’t announced the City of Light just yet, but Marinak noted: “We see a lot of engagement in France.” The players’ association signed off on MLB holding a game in Paris in 2025 as part of last year’s collective bargaining agreement.
London is locked in for a series next year and another in 2026.
The Netherlands — bolstered by baseball’s popularity in Aruba and Curacao — and Italy boast the best national teams in Europe, though the Czech Republic is improving. Germany — which has become the NFL’s leading market in Europe — has a big U.S. military presence and has produced several big leaguers, including Minnesota’s Max Kepler.
“We’ve really focused on looking into Europe as once a year, maybe max twice a year … just because it’s such an effort to get over there, and it doesn’t really fit into the normal cadence of the major league schedule, but we really do think it’s important to bring live game content to the market,” Marinak said.
“We want to hit our priority markets but we may rotate around to a Germany in the long run or if there’s a facility in the Netherlands that we could potentially look at, France we’ve talked about, the UK,” he continued. ”But for the medium term we’re really focused on the UK as our primary vehicle.”
A suitable venue is the tricky part. Olympic-style, multi-use stadiums are possibilities, like Stade de France. Baseball was a demonstration sport at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin’s Olympiastadion. Renovating the Sydney Cricket Ground for the Australia series in 2014 “was sort of a complicated endeavor,” Marinak said.
The NFL, NBA and NHL have been staging games in Europe for years, leaving MLB playing catch up. Thirty years ago, MLB scheduled exhibitions between Mets and Red Sox minor leaguers at the Oval, but rain at the London cricket venue washed out the first two days. Technically, baseball’s connection with Britain goes way back, starting with exhibitions between the Boston Red Stockings and Philadelphia Athletics in 1874.
In a more modern development, MLB is giving individual teams certain marketing rights abroad, like the NFL does.
“They have the opportunity to pick a few markets and do sponsorships,” Marinak said. “We think that’s an opportunity to grow, where teams can activate in local markets and really pick places where they can bring their brand to bear and then also bring those relationships with some of those international partners back to the United States.”
Having a star player from abroad is vital, said sports economist Victor Matheson, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross. Pro leagues “tend to generate a reasonable amount of revenue in those players’ home countries.” Japanese phenom Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels is the shining example.
“That being said, with so few MLB players hailing from the UK or the rest of the EU, it’s my impression that MLB has made almost no inroads into Europe,” Matheson said.
MLB hopes Britain’s relative success in the WBC planted a seed. The 20-year-old Ford, whose parents are British, was Seattle’s top pick in the 2021 draft and hit a home run in Britain’s 7-5 win over Colombia — which qualified the team for the next WBC.
“You need that type of star to create the engagement and the interest in the local market,” Marinak said.
For now, the focus is on the weekend games at London Stadium.
“We’re optimistic that this is the next step in a long journey of linking Major League Baseball to the U.K. and the rest of Europe.”