A game reckoned to be created in the UK, but by 1856 was being referred to as America’s “national game”.
Meet baseball, which has come to the UK this weekend when two of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) franchises face off at the Olympic Stadium in London. This is the first competitive MLB game to be played in the UK.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery – The NFL & London
The MLB is clearly looking to replicate what the NFL has very successfully done with its London-based games, which were rolled out over a decade ago. Each game played in the UK has been a virtual sell out, along with various large scale fan events becoming the norm with audiences here, including a complete takeover of Regent Street for a fan experience.
In a piece with Sports Business Journal, the NFL revealed just 3% of those going to the London games are Americans or American expatriates, with a healthy spread coming from all over the UK, with 22% from London and 60% elsewhere. The NFL’s own research has found that there are over 13 million fans in the UK, including 4 million who the league describe as “avid”.
Another barometer of their health is that tickets generally sell out up to nine months in advance. In addition, the NFL has relied on not just Sky Sports, but also national broadcaster, the BBC, for coverage of the London games, and also a highlights show, meaning the sport is reaching an unprecedented audience of 23 million over the course of the 2016 season (the last year of available data currently).
The overall success of the NFL games has even led to talk of the league potentially launching a London-based franchise.
I feel this market without question could have an NFL team. There’s no question a team could be successful here.Roger Goodell, NFL Commissioner
“Why does the NFL come to London? They come to London because they’ve got a big fanbase here. Initially you make sure that you’re serving your existing fanbases, before exploring new markets, so that’s what we’ve been doing. Now seemed like the right time to come to Europe, but the reason it’s taken until now is because we’ve been busy with other markets – that’s probably the simple way to put it.”
“We don’t want to emulate the NFL and the NBA, and that is in no way a criticism, it’s quite the opposite,” explains Salter. “It’s because they’ve done a very good job and have been here for a long time, so they are already established in this market.
Baseball In The UK & Europe
Surprisingly, baseball participation levels do appear to be growing in the UK, to coincide with MLB’s entry into the UK market. BaseballSoftballUK, which is a development agency for the sport in the country, estimates that participation levels jumped by 68%, amounting to 4,000 people who play the game regularly. In addition, in 2013, the group, with help from Sport England, helped to open the country’s first-ever sports complex dedicated to baseball and softball in Slough. The country also boasts 70+ active baseball teams, consisting of roughly 1,500 players, from all over the UK, with teams in Liverpool, London and Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, on a European level, the Confederation of European Baseball, provided data that highlighted that numbers of “competitive European baseball players” has grown from 18,133 in 1970 to 112,303 in 2010. Given that the continent is home to over 700+ million, this really paints baseball as a niche sport to say the least. When looking at the number of European players to have made it to the modern day MLB, the numbers are event starker, with roughly 40+ players from the EU being players on MLB calibre teams (or their minor league equivalents).
Therefore, is it realistic to expect big things from its first trip to Europe and also building up a significant audience? No, in short. It faces huge competition form established rivals like the NFL and also the NBA (who has also played games in London since 2011).
However, it points to a wider ambition of US sports league really seeking to expand audience numbers and also making commitments to other markets to actually provide access to competitive games (and top tier teams within their respective leagues). This can only be a good thing and may well help young athletes get into the sport, or even raise engagement levels.
It has to be admitted though, baseball will struggle to reach the popularity levels of the NFL or NBA in the UK, but they shouldn’t be knocked for giving this a go, especially with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred admitting he’d like to host games in a host of other European countries.