If one is interested in tea, the lives of largely powerless monarchs, or Premier League football, London is the place to be. Want to expand your interests to international cuisine, a really big Ferris wheel, or even expatriated NFL action? You can find it in the UK’s capital city. Branch out a bit further in search of a bat and ball sport not interested in the ongoing Kevin Pietersen saga, and baseball too can be found.
Baseball is a niche sport in the UK, much like cricket in the states. The sport features a disproportionate amount of American, Japanese, and Australian nationals living in London and relatively few full-bred Brits. The imported knowledge and talent has helped foster the domestic talent to the point that a few Brits are able to make the jump to American college baseball each year.
From a player’s perspective, there are plenty of opportunities to play ball, both on club teams and for the top players with British passports, on the various national youth teams.
From a fan’s perspective, however, there is little to speak of. The London Mets currently rank as Britain’s best club, checking it at number 29 on Mister-Baseball’s European club rankings. No other British club places in the top 50, although the 2015 runner-up Southampton Mustangs received an honorable mention. By contrast, one of the best leagues in Europe, the German Bundesliga, placed four teams in the top 15, resulting in both more overall talent and more competition for league championships.
The quality is improving, but British baseball could see that improvement expedited with MLB intervention. Commissioner Rob Manfred recently confirmed rumors about MLB’s plans to play regular season games in London as soon as 2017; a move that would instantly improve the status of baseball in the fabric of British culture.
From the league’s perspective, the potential gains for the league winning over new fans could be significant and the logistics of playing in London seem relatively simple compared to previous international games in Sydney, for example. It seems unlikely that the league would be tasked with turning a cricket pitch into a baseball field of MLB standards in just two weeks – although the success in Sydney in spite of the logistical obstacles speaks well of the league’s ability to bring their best product in any situation.
London may also prove to be an easy destination due to the success the NFL has experienced by regularly hosting games – even games between relatively lousy teams – in the British capital. This exposure to American sports may reduce some of the shock value of bringing MLB to the city, but the flip side of this argument is that British fans are primed for the next American sport to hit their shores. With multiple games each season, NFL games are no longer new and exciting, but they remain popular and worthwhile for the league due to an increase in exposure and popularity.
The potential games in London would represent a change for MLB, as the poor British weather means that the only reasonable times to play will be during the middle of the season – perhaps around the All Star break to minimize jet lag in the already-crammed schedule. This is a change from the various Opening Series’ put on by the league in places like Sydney, Tokyo, and Beijing and will result in less time for local interaction, cross-sport interactions, and touring than previous international series. More importantly, playing in a relatively mild British July is much preferable to forcing the issue in the cold spring.
The biggest question, both for the league and for current players, coaches and officials in British baseball, is how will this affect the long-term development of baseball in the UK and all of Europe? Will new players begin to line up outside of clubs or will the event fail to move the needle in British culture?
With so many differences in each international location, it is difficult to apply conclusions from previous series to London. In Sydney, for example, the Opening Series did not immediately vault the Australian Baseball League (ABL) to the top of the crowded sports landscape, but it certainly won over some new players and new fans. Will the new fans and players stick as the memories of the successful Opening Series fade? Only time will tell.
As for London, as the immensely popular Barclay’s Premier League is off during the summer, cricket could be seen as the biggest potential rival to baseball. Alternatively, cricket and baseball could become friendly cousins, as the reasons for enjoying one of the sports often seamlessly transfer to the other. England is the motherland of cricket, most notably including Lord’s Cricket Ground that is literally known as the "Home of Cricket." The status of cricket in England, especially London, makes it virtually impossible for baseball to overtake it in popularity, but especially with the infrequent schedule, small stadiums, and elitist status of English cricket, there is reason to believe that baseball’s niche has significant room to grow.
It is the hope of Major League Baseball and British baseball personnel that MLB intervention can and will continue to grow the sport in both the UK and the rest of mainland Europe. The success of the NFL in their international market of choice bodes extremely well for MLB’s first appearance on British soil and the population density means that they have plenty of fans to win over during their short stay. These factors add up to an attractive and logical destination for MLB, and it is no surprise that the first international games under Manfred’s watch appear on track to occur in London.
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Dan Weigel is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and Sporting News. He also spent the past summer playing and coaching baseball in the UK and the winter (southern summer) before that working in MLB International's Sydney office. Additionally, after trying quite a few in each city, he firmly believes Sydney has better kebabs. Follow him on twitter at @danweigel38.