Baseball searches for ‘legacy’ with Red Sox, Yankees in London
Britons have long been accustomed to sitting through lengthy, drawn out sporting events, with action often only occurring in short bursts.
It took Novak Djokovic five hours and 16 minutes to reach the Wimbledon men’s tennis final in 2018, beating Rafael Nadal in five sets in the semifinals.
The final of the 2019 World Snooker Championships, held in the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, took place over four sessions, spanning two days.
Then there’s cricket, which takes things to a whole new level. Test matches last up to five days — interlaced with lunch, tea and drinks — and even then, much to the amusement of the majority of non-cricketing nations, the result can still be a draw.
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This summer British fans of slow sport will get an additional taste of bat and ball action — the MLB is coming to the UK with the New York Yankees taking on the Boston Red Sox in a two-game series across the weekend of June 29-30 at West Ham United’s London Stadium.
Keeping fans interested
Cultivating an appreciation of baseball in the UK is very much top of BaseballSoftballUK CEO John Boyd’s agenda.
“The experience isn’t just relying on the atmosphere in the stadium and idea of ‘Americana’ or hotdogs and crackerjack,” Boyd told CNN Sport. “But it is important to get fans to value and appreciate the product on the field for what it is.
“Crudely put, the Yankees vs. Red Sox are notoriously long games. They’re also very skilled teams. So there is a potential for it to be a five-and-a-half hour game.
“And if you fill that stadium with the new generation of fans who are only there for the NY logo and looking cool, then will they really be returning fans? And how do we make sure that their experiences are topnotch and appreciative of the sport?”
Team GB’s first pitcher to play in the MLB is Michael Roth, who played for the Los Angeles Angels and the Chicago Cubs. Born in Greenville, South Carolina to an American father and an English mother — Roth admits that baseball “isn’t the most accessible sport for kids and families compared to some of its counterparts.”
He adds: “I think baseball as a whole is in an interesting point in its life. Baseball can be a long game with few spurts of action and it has struggled lately to increase its fans in the younger demographic.
“I think baseball will need to come up with new ways to market the game and its players while sticking with the rich tradition.”
In bringing the Red Sox and the Yankees to London, the MLB has decided to follow the path previously trodden by the NFL and NBA in showcasing those sports with competitive matches in the UK.
Between them, the Red Sox and Yankees have won 36 World Series, (the Red Sox are the reigning champions), and they represent two of the most highly recognized brands not only in the US, but also in world sport.
“There is no better baseball than when the Red Sox play the Yankees,” Joshua Mills-Knutsen, co-director of youth baseball at the London Mets — a baseball team based in Britain’s capital — told CNN Sport. “I mean that not just from the quality of players, but because of the history and drama that these two teams bring to the field.
“People should be excited they get to see this game in a location that’s neither New York nor Boston, and they are.
“People in our club are arranging holidays around the Series, and when people I just met find out I coach baseball, the Series is the first thing they want to talk about. It’s a very big deal, and I think the British public understand that and are responding.”
Reconnecting with the history
Although baseball is a major sport in the US, its origins lie in Surrey, England, with the first recorded mention of ‘bass-ball’ being dated to 9th September 1749.
In an attempt to honor that heritage, BaseballSoftballUK will install a blue plaque — a permanent sign to link the people of the past with the buildings of the present — in Walton-on-Thames on July 7 to mark where the first baseball game was ever played.
Despite baseball’s relatively low profile in the UK, Mills-Knutsen believes that there is a huge untapped market here for the MLB.
“I’m a bit biased, of course, but there’s room for baseball in the UK,” said Mills-Knutsen. “Because baseball is a fantastic sport that combines intellect and athletics in a unique way.
“I suspect anyone who enjoyed cricket would find common ground with baseball, but what really matters is that the British are generally sports fans. They’ve taken to the NFL because it’s has a great product.
“MLB has a great product too and the more the British get to know it, the more they’ll love it.”
Mills-Knutsen has been going to MLB games in San Diego since he was three years old. But when he moved from Jeffersonville, Indiana to London, he was concerned that his young son wouldn’t be able to find a place to play the game.
As it turns out, he needn’t have worried.
“The longer I’m here, the more I see signs of the sport,” he said. “Not only do the Mets host both youth and adult players, but there are quite a few clubs around southern England for us to play.
“More than that, within our youth, you can see what was once mostly expats, is giving way to homegrown British kids taken with the sport. The internet has helped with that of course, and with MLB coming we see excitement stemming from those games as well.”
Getting people involved
As the development agency for baseball and softball in the United Kingdom, BaseballSoftballUK’s key objective is to develop and increase the levels of participation, skill and achievement in the sports. And having helped found BaseballSoftballUK and join as an inaugural member, Boyd has seen a steady growth in the number of players participating.
“There were 10,000 players when we started our new calculation process in 2009,” Boyd explained.
“We’re currently sitting at 25,000 players playing three formats. And within that as well, it’s 42% female and it’s 14% LGBT which is twice the national average.”
While acknowledging that baseball is still a minority sport in the UK, Boyd says it’s become more popular in the UK than sports such as volleyball and fencing.
He explained: “We’ve been climbing by between 1,500 and 3,500 people year on year and that’s just been through our own growth initiative.
“While we haven’t set a specific target of success from the London Series because it’s quite hard to do so, we have expectations that would climb at a rate that significantly better than our best years yet.”
Liam Carroll has been head coach of Team GB since January 2015, and during that time, has seen a dramatic increase in the popularity of the sport.
“It’s grown significantly in terms of MLB fans,” he said. “We’ve always had a hardcore niche fan base but with the growth of MLBTV and MLB’s efforts to grow the game, we’ve seen a lot more fans.
“I think that’s evidenced by the social media presence. I think every MLB club now has its own Twitter fan account in the UK and it’s been great to see the fans having meet-ups around the country. Then I think there’s been growth in participation at the adult level. It’s been fascinating to see more and more adult teams pop up.”
Whilst Carroll has lived in the UK for the majority of his life, his family are from Chicago. His dad — a fanatical Brooklyn Dodgers fan — introduced Carroll to the sport at the age of four. Like other British baseball players, Carroll went to the US to play college baseball, spending three years in California and then another five coaching in Nevada.
“Many people say that baseball will remain at the mercy of people choosing to play the more traditional British sports,” reflected Carroll. “And while I think baseball will always remain a relatively minority sport, I think there’s enough people to go around that will choose baseball over cricket or even football.”
Using the NFL as an example
Tickets for the Red Sox and Yankees games in London sold out fast when they were first released with secondary ticket seller StubHub saying that they are the “best-selling game(s) of the 2019 regular season.”
According to StubHub general manager Jill Krimmel, fans from 44 different states in the US and 27 different countries have already purchased tickets for the MLB London series.
The NFL has been playing regular season games in the UK since 2007 and not only has the sport developed a significant following in the UK, British players such as Jay Ajayi and Efe Obada are starting to break through into NFL teams.
To further fuel this progress, the NFL has announced their UK based Academy which aims to create a pathway for more international players to play gridiron.
Having an icon playing in the MLB would benefit the popularity of baseball in the UK, according to Carroll.
“I think what one of the things that’s happened with the NFL is the opportunity to go to college in the States and get a scholarship and even to sign with an NFL team can be a life changing opportunity,” he explained.
“And that does exist in baseball, but it will be so much easier to tell that story if we have a British player sign a professional contract.
“I think it would absolutely be a game changer if one of our players, whether it’s someone who’s involved now or someone who’s going to pick up a ball and a bat because they see the Games next month, will absolutely do wonders for our sport.”
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And Boyd echoes Carroll’s sentiment in believing something more long-term must come from the London Series to get more British people playing the sport.
“There needs to be a legacy left by these games,” he said. “Unlike American football, I think the expectation is there would be some kind of playing outlet left behind by these games, some form of opportunity to take part.
“The need for that is paramount for the Series not just look like a business proposition.”