Baseball may be called “America’s Pastime” but Major League Baseball (MLB) has firmly set its sights on flying much further afield.
The league started its globalization efforts in earnest when the league played 11 games outside of the US and Canada combined in 2018 and 2019 – nearly as many as the 14 international games it played in all of its prior seasons combined.
The biggest highlights were the two London Series games that saw the New York Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox at the London Stadium, home of English soccer’s West Ham. As the MLB’s first regular-season games ever in Europe, each game drew almost 60,000 fans and strong television figures, as well as overwhelming demand for merchandise.
In bringing the Red Sox and the Yankees to London, the MLB decided to follow the path previously trodden by American football’s NFL and basketball’s NBA in showcasing their sports with competitive matches rather than exhibition games. They also happen to represent two of the most highly recognized brands not only in the US but also in the world.
The games were deemed a resounding commercial success, and the league planned to ramp up its international presence even more, announcing its return to London in 2020 with two games between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals at the same venue.
That is until the pandemic hit.
Back home, stadium doors closed on spectators after almost all US states banned mass gatherings and major events indefinitely. International events, meanwhile, were put on ice.
But after a four-year hiatus, the MLB is finally heading back to London this weekend (June 24 and 25) to stage the same two-game series between the Cubs and Cardinals as part of the league’s thawed-out international plans.
“It was massively unfortunate that we weren’t able to follow the success of 2019 with another visit in 2020 because we gained a lot of momentum off the back of the two games and we had to suddenly press pause on all of our plans,” Ben Ladkin, MLB Europe’s managing director, tells GlobalData Sport.
“But the stoppage really stored up demand, and we saw real enthusiasm when we announced that we were coming back.”
The two games form part of the league’s new MLB World Tour – an international slate of games approved in the contentious labor agreement between MLB and the MLB Players Association struck in March last year.
Alongside plans to stage more games in London in 2024 and 2026, the league will travel to France in 2025, having annual Mexico City games from 2023 to 2026, an Asian opener in 2024, a Tokyo opener in 2025, and a series in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 2025 and 2026.
Despite being entrenched in American history and culture, baseball’s origins lie in Surrey, England, with the first recorded mention of ‘bass-ball’ dated September 9, 1749.
The sport seems ready-made for Britons, having long been accustomed to sitting through lengthy drawn-out sporting events, with action often only occurring in short bursts.
Tennis matches at the Wimbledon grand slam often last for more than four hours, while cricket takes things to a whole new level. Test matches last up to five days – interlaced with breaks for lunch, tea, and drinks.
In that way, despite baseball’s relatively low profile in the UK, there has always been a huge untapped market of fans the MLB could develop.
But, while Londoners have become accustomed to seeing NFL teams make their way over to the capital every year since 2007, watching live MLB games remained stubbornly out of reach for European fans until only recently.
“Europe presented us with an interesting challenge,” says Ladkin. “We have a really strong avid fanbase who will stay up until 2AM to watch games and a good merchandise presence in places like Germany and France so it’s been on the league’s radar for some time.
“We wanted to really think about how we approach it and what we want to get out of it.
“We focused on the UK as a good first base to see what our potential was, and people traveled from other parts of Europe for those  games which helped us push our plans out further.”
Being a late entrant isn’t without its drawbacks, and the league will have to compete with the sports entertainment bonanza that is the NFL, but Ladkin believes there is enough room for everyone.
“The NFL has done an amazing job and they’ve been doing UK games for over 10 years now, and we are quite early in our journey. We’ve looked at their model and we’ve taken some lessons from them on what has worked, what hasn’t.
“But our strategy will be unique to the sport and I’m sure there will be crossover in terms of fans. There is definitely the ability to follow both NFL, NBA, and MLB plus all the other domestic sports too.
“There is a unique kind of enjoyment of baseball when you go to a ballpark on a summer’s evening – it’s an absolutely fantastic experience and I think what we really want to do is give people that experience in the UK and Europe from the moment they walk into the ballpark until they leave.”
Expanding the fan zone
With the pandemic consigned to the dustbin of history and a new collective bargaining agreement in place, the MLB has set its sights on its next most pressing challenge: attracting a younger (and more international) audience.
Various data references place the average age of domestic baseball fans in their mid-to-late 50s. Compare that to sports like basketball and football, where the NFL and NBA have commanding holds on the cherished 18-to-44 demographic, and baseball has a problem.
MLB isn’t blind to the issue. In fact, it's made it its mission to publicly combat the optics of an older fanbase by ramping up its social media presence and taking steps to evolve gameplay in a way that they hope will prove attractive to new international audiences.
To combat critics that label games being too long, slow, and boring, they have made drastic changes such as expanding base sizes and banning shifts to increase hits and runners-on and implementing pitch clocks and limits to how many times pitchers can attempt pick-offs – all to speed up the game.
And the league is hoping that these changes will make their overseas games more exciting and more media-friendly for prospective international fans.
“While the pandemic was unfortunate, what it did allow us to do was take a little bit of a step back and figure out what we’re doing across all of the different sorts of pillars that we have,” says Ladkin.
“So, although we weren’t able to do the big tentpole events, we actually developed a really rich set of social content through our MLB Europe social channels.
“Our US colleagues do an amazing job of covering the sport in all of its detail and what we try and do is create a softer landing for new fans so they can understand what’s going on and we can highlight some of the great narratives and stories that come out of the sport.
“We also created touchpoints through fashion, food, music, all of those cultural areas, to attract not only international fans but also a younger demographic that use those entry points to get into the sport.”
Ladkin is quick to point out that MLB has been embedded in European popular culture for longer than people realize. The Yankees logo, for example, is known first and foremost as a fashion label on snapbacks and t-shirts.
Last year, MLB international merchandise sales were up 24% over 2021 and sales had increased in all individual markets, including Mexico and Latin America, Canada, EMEA, and Asia/Oceania, according to MLB, and Ladkin says the league’s merchandise business has seen even more rapid growth internationally.
MLB’s decision to venture into a market that isn’t short of passionate sports fans who happen to love a good novelty sporting event has shown them in good steed before. Playing games over a weekend in June, avoiding any clashes with the domestic soccer season, ensured their previous games and merchandise were big sellers.
After the 2019 games, MLB announced there were record merchandise sales during the event, surpassing the league’s previous three-day record for merchandise sales during the 2008 All-Star Game festivities in New York.
Almost all inventory was sold out and the crowds were eager for more. This year, the league will be doubling their merchandise efforts knowing the demand will once again be there, including through a pop-up fashion store in Soho that will be selling headwear and apparel as “another way to soak up the MLB celebrations beyond the ballpark.”
Taking it home
With each game already sold out, the league can expect the 60,000-capacity London Stadium to be filled with a mix of hardcore fans and curious onlookers keen to experience a spot of American culture.
All of this feeds into increasing the fanbase of the league and teams back home, with those inquisitive enough to attend being the main target of the teams playing. Expect a sudden boom in followers on their social media pages and merchandise sales after their fleeting visit.
“We hope [new fans] do follow a team because you follow leagues, but you support teams and then once people pick up a team, then really you do get that level of engagement that is so crucial,” says Ladkin.
“We hope following the weekend we will have a whole load of new Cubs and Cardinal fans, but we hope that people will follow whichever team they get drawn into by telling stories from all different teams through our content and through the work that we do.”
Ladkin remains coy when asked how teams are chosen to embark on the transatlantic exhibition, only saying the league is “really trying to focus on the rivalries between teams” to lean into the storytelling side of baseball.
For now, the focus is on this week’s festivities, with a broad range of activities and activations with local partners set to ramp up the excitement in time for the big games. The biggest one of these is MLB’s planned three-day ‘takeover’ of London's Trafalgar Square where the league will invite fans to celebrate the best of baseball culture for free.
There will be food, music, and merchandise and at the centerpiece of the fan festival will be the Home Run Derby X: The Cage, which will give visitors the chance to hit home runs through virtual gameplay.
“For people who can’t make it to the London Stadium, they can still get a great experience seeing it outside – they can watch the games, soak up the atmosphere, and hopefully come away with a little more knowledge of the game,” explains Ladkin.
“That kind of touchpoint is really important when visiting a new market and we know that London has a great mix of people that are open to new experiences and sports that are entertaining and memorable.”