Does Major League Baseball Have a Future in Europe?
24 Jul, 2019By: Michael Popke
Despite Major League Baseball’s recent announcement that it would not open the 2020 season in Asia (as it did this past March when the Seattle Mariners met the Oakland A’s in Tokyo), Commissioner Rob Manfred remains keen on expanding internationally.
“I would like to have sustained play in Europe,” Manfred told reporters while in London, where the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox on June 29 became the first two MLB teams to ever play in Europe — at London Stadium, home of the Premier League’s West Ham United Football Club. “I’m thrilled to be in London. I’m glad to be coming back next year [Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals], but I’m also interested in playing in other cities in Europe.”
When asked, Manfred declined to list potential sites of future games, citing the challenge of finding stadiums suitable for a baseball field. “Playing in Europe presents some challenges that the NFL doesn’t have,’’ he said, referring to the increasing number of NFL games being played in London. “It’s a lot easier for them to play inside soccer stadiums. It’s virtually impossible for us.’’
Getting baseball to appeal to international audiences has been something of a conundrum. The Olympics in 2020 (in Tokyo) will include baseball and softball. The 2024 Games in Paris won’t include them – the sports have never had much of a following there. But it’s a sure bet both will appear on the docket in Los Angeles in 2028. However, with some event owners marketing international trips to compete in sports including running, soccer and even pickleball, it's likely there will be a push to find a way to move events overseas -- even if just from a marketing standpoint.
The anomaly of baseball was a point in its favor in late June when the game came to London. 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.
“We’re trying to bring baseball to the UK, so that 70 percent is important to us,” Manfred said. “That 30 percent is our most loyal, devoted, interested fan base, and the fact that those people want to travel either from New York or Boston to see a Yankees-Red Sox game, it’s not bad news for us, either.”
Paris-based journalist Cole Strangler writes that the fact MLB is making inroads in Europe is a major boost for the league’s international standing. “Baseball … remains far less known on this side of the Atlantic,” he wrote for CommonwealMagazine.com. “While enormously popular in the Caribbean and in Japan, it’s never been of much interest to the English — who already have the closely related gamed of cricket — or to Continental Europeans, who tend to follow some combination of tennis, cycling, rugby and soccer during the summer months. Baseball isn’t the most accessible sport, either. Games are long, the rules are complicated, and a lot of time is spent waiting for things to happen. That’s a source of intrigue and beauty for the well-initiated, but it all can seem boring if you have no idea what’s going on.”
All of which might explain why video footage of a bunting contest in Korea recently went viral.