The sun is shining brightly in a rich blue summer sky. There’s an expectant murmur from the crowd, suddenly punctuated by the sound of a ball hitting a mitt at high velocity, and a cry of “strike three!”
This is baseball. What could possibly be more stereotypically American?
Yet it seems Major League Baseball, the highest profile league in its sport, isn’t happy with restricting its sights to the US and Canada. Instead, they’re trying to promote their brand outside of North America. Several times, MLB teams have travelled across the Pacific to do battle in Tokyo, yet it isn’t too much of a challenge to draw a crowd in an Asian nation that is obsessed with the game.
Then, MLB made a slightly more adventurous move – an Opening Series in Sydney in 2014. Australia isn’t alien to the sport of baseball – they do have a professional six-team league – but it isn’t quite a major blip on the sporting radar, and can’t seriously compete with cricket.
Now, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has his sights set on an even larger challenge: he wants to see games in London in 2017. London: where top-flight UK teams do battle in front of…well, nobody.
With all of this to come, I arranged to meet with Derrick Hall, the President and CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks, one of the sides that took part in the Sydney games back in 2014.
We start by talking about how the D-backs came about heading Down Under. “We actually volunteered,” Hall begins. “I serve on the Major League Baseball owners’ Committee for International Baseball, and I’ve always been a strong advocate of both exhibition games and season games abroad.”
Still, this enthusiasm may not be well appreciated by all fans. A Premier League equivalent to this, dubbed ‘Game 39’, has been universally criticised for short-changing the fans at home, and Hall says that it was “difficult” to have to give up two home games. Still, he saw an opportunity for the home crowd: “a lot of our fans went over there to see the games,” he says, “so it was an opportunity for them to go down under and take in our games in Australia.”
“There’s still conversations with the promoters, and they want to continue to have games there”
I ask about what the D-backs had done to promote the game before heading Down Under. “We actually did a lot,” Hall begins. “I thought it was very important that we try and become a part of that community before going there.” He talks a lot about the work done in getting the word out in local media, as well as meeting with all of the sport federations.
He saw that, as the smaller-market team, it was harder for them to break into the hearts and minds of Australians. “People were familiar with the Dodgers,” he points out, “and they had players that had played for the Dodgers: Craig Shipley, who works for us, was the first Australian player signed to the Major Leagues, and he was a Dodger.” Still, he thinks they did a good job. “I think we were effective, because for our game I would say it was easily equal, half and half of Dodger fans and D-back fans. In fact, we still have fans that come here to see some of our games from Australia because they got attached to us, which is great.”
We begin to talk about the future of baseball in Australia. “There’s still conversations with the promoters,” Hall explains, “and they want to continue to have games there. They would prefer to have us in each of those games, not necessarily with the Dodgers, but with another big team.” So, would the D-backs want to go back? “We’d be open to it because we had such a good experience there and we have, we believe, so many lifelong friends now in Australia.”
He accepts that MLB is “probably going to want to go with East Coast teams at first, to try it”
Still, not everything can be positive. I ask him whether he thinks that the games had a negative impact on the start of their season. “I don’t think so,” he argues. “You look at the Dodgers, who had the same conditions: they won the Division that year, they went to the Playoffs so I would not use that as an excuse. We had some injuries, right before we went down there.” Yet, Hall doesn’t think everything was perfect. After playing in Australia, the team then returned home for some final exhibition games before the start of the rest of the season. “It was very emotionally challenging for both teams to get really excited and revved up for the Regular Season, and then the let down of getting back and playing games that didn’t really matter,” he points out, suggesting that next time “you would take Spring Training for those two teams up to a point where they would go down, play those games and come back, maybe have a day or two of rest and pick up where they left off.”
We move onto the potential games in London next year. In an interview with Associated Press, Commissioner Manfred conceded that the games would likely have to be played in the middle of the season due to weather concerns, so I ask Hall if he felt that this would have a negative impact on the teams involved. “I don’t think so, in that the travel’s a lot easier to get over there,” he replies, although he accepts that MLB is “probably going to want to go with East Coast teams at first, to try it, especially in the middle of the season and I know there’s been discussion of the Yankees and Red Sox, or whoever it might be.”
We start to talk about the compatibility of baseball with the UK market, and Hall was very optimistic. “I think that fans that don’t have a great education when it comes to Major League Baseball will be curious, will want to attend because it is going to be the event to be at,” he tells me, “and I think once they’re there, hopefully you capture them as fans for life.”
“As soon as you land that first big player, everybody’s in”
We touch on baseball’s ability to reach out in the UK, particularly given that the more familiar summer sport of cricket has been struggling to draw in crowds in recent years, forcing a focus on innovation. Hall dismisses that this is a sign of any major changes to society, saying that the “same thing is happening with Major League Baseball – you see a slight decrease in some numbers, you think it’s changing… [but] it’s just because of all the options. Just like here, whether people are watching MMA, or cage fighting, or motor sports, they didn’t have all those options before. 50 years ago, or 60 years ago, there was horse racing, boxing and baseball.” With this in mind, he doesn’t see there being much to worry about for the future of the summer sports.
I ask what he thinks it will take to grow baseball in the UK. He’s quick to respond: “We’re going to have to get young people playing the sport.” Hall goes further: “What it really takes…as soon as you land that first big player, everybody’s in. If we have an athlete that comes from England one day, and he’s playing for the Diamondbacks, we know that people are going to wake up to watch that player out of national pride on TV there in England and become fans of the game.”
As we come towards the end, he reaches out to people in the UK. “You get to experience something incredibly American and nostalgic to us without having to make the travel over here”, he points out. “I hope whichever teams are selected to go to England, that they’re really excited about it,” before adding “who knows, maybe we’ll be lucky enough to go. We did a survey, every team did a survey and I put London at the top of my list. We’ll see.”
That evening, the D-backs would welcome the Cubs to Chase Field and manage to secure a 3-2 win. Still, it remains to be seen whether the sport of baseball can win when it comes to taking a trip across the Atlantic.