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Weekly Hit Ground Ball: MLB UK plans offer hope

by Matt Smith

After the success of MLB Battlegrounds in Hyde Park last year and long-running rumours of MLB games taking place in London, many fans in the UK have been waiting for updates on what MLB UK’s plans are for the next couple of years.

Batflips and Nerds got the chance to speak to MLB UK Head Charlie Hill and it’s well worth a listen if you haven’t checked it out as yet.

London Games

The news we all are waiting for wasn’t provided, but in some ways that was as positive a message as we could get.

Ever since the current MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement was finalised in December 2016, the years of talk finally seemed to be coming to fruition with London being one of the locations on the international play plan for the five years that the CBA covers.

Until an exact date and team line-up is in place and ready to be announced, there isn’t much more Hill can say.  We all know the CBA has potential games in London marked in for 2019 and 2020 and so long as he’s playing coy and doing nothing to temper our enthusiasm, we can be optimistic about what’s to come and there being an announcement in the not too distant future, even if the immense practicalities still need to be worked through.

Wider work

Hill also acknowledged something that has long been said about potential games on British soil: they’ll be great for existing fans but only have a limited short-term publicity boost without them being part of a much larger plan to increase and foster awareness of MLB in the UK.

Outside of supporting fan events – potentially with ex-player Q&A’s as we’ve seen with NFL UK events – there isn’t a huge amount of detail on what this may entail, but that’s down to Hill being clear on MLB UK taking a considered approach and listening to fans as they develop new ideas.

It was interesting to hear Hill talk of the success of MLB Battlegrounds and that part of this was the involvement of ex-Major Leaguers Carlos Pena, Cliff Floyd and Shawn Green and how they – and possibly others in future – could be advocates for MLB UK among the current and ex-playing community.

It seems to me precisely the right way to go in building things progressively, making every step – the MLB pop-up shop, MLB Battlegrounds etc – a success and a point from which to build on to the next one.

Licencing rights

It was expected that work would be going on to gain as much exposure for potential London games as possible, but Hill’s comments suggest that this is being looked at more broadly in respect of finding ways to increase coverage of the sport.

For existing fans already engaging with MLB on social media and the like, it’s easy to underestimate how important mainstream coverage (TV, radio, newspapers etc) still is to get a sport – or any entertainment for that matter – in front of new people.  That’s especially the case in a country where, in significant terms, there isn’t a culture of the sport being part of people’s consciousness.

Online content certainly can play a part in this and it’s interesting to read the announcement on Friday that Facebook are partnering with MLB to show a free game every week during the regular season, with the four games in April all being day-games and therefore convenient evening viewing for us.  There is a caveat in the announcement that it will be available globally “excluding select international markets”, so fingers crossed that doesn’t affect the UK.

Where we’ve come from

The mention of broadcasting rights made me think of where we are with MLB in the UK today.

When it was reported recently that the Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners would be playing a series in Japan next year, I remembered the A’s-Red Sox series of 2012. Not only were the games featured on BBC 5 Live Sports Extra, but Simon Brotherton and Josh Chetwynd actually went out to the Tokyo Dome to provide BBC radio commentary.

Six years on and such UK-dedicated coverage has been conspicuous by its absence since that time.  Prior to this we had a couple of years of coverage of the MLB season on Five Live Sports Extra and before that the halcyon days of Baseball on 5 when we had MLB on terrestrial TV.

There were three aspects to that coverage: 1) a way for baseball fans to follow the sport if online or TV packages were out of reach or not available, 2) a way for people to stumble across the sport who otherwise may have never given it a chance, and 3) creating a centre for the MLB fan community in this country.

Lots of additional things came out of that coverage, from large numbers participating in the Fantasy Baseball UK competition (still going today – sign up here) to the type of fan get-togethers that are now being picked up again by the likes of MLB UK Committee and active forums such as the UK MLB Supporters Forum.

Social media and online content can help to fill that gap to an extent nowadays, but then again that does always have the risk of fooling us involved in how widespread that support is.  Was the active UK MLB fan community larger ten years ago today than it is today?  I suspect it was and that’s the impact that losing TV and radio coverage can have, yet that’s not to be despondent about what the future may bring.

What we can build together

The MLB fanbase may not be as big as others in the UK, yet for years there have been fan parties, fanzines, forums, blogs, podcasts that have brought those fans together.

MLB UK isn’t having to start from Day Zero, nor are they having to take a punt on hoping there is a community out there to support and be part of their efforts. There are plenty of people across the country who are passionate about the sport, have some great ideas and plenty of talent to make things come to life. The increasing number of UK Twitter accounts, blogs, podcasts and fan-led events show that there are plenty of people willing to be part of it.

If MLB UK can provide a hub to support ideas and to launch new events and plans to then marshal the UK MLB fan troops around them then together we can all really make a difference in spreading the game throughout the country to those will give it a chance.

Other thoughts

Promoting British baseball clubs

It’s good to hear Hill talking about creating a legacy from MLB games.  I know baseball and softball clubs will be keen to be part of future plans and finding ways in which MLB events can help push interest towards the clubs in the UK.  There isn’t always a direct link between playing and watching a sport, but MLB has the power to grab people’s attention and I’m sure everyone involved in baseball here has had numerous examples of neighbours or work colleagues expressing surprise on finding that there is any baseball in this country.  Getting that message out there among the MLB publicity could be a real positive for British clubs.

MLB UK Twitter

The MLB UK Twitter account has been the subject of some comment, mainly in regard to its relative dormant state for several months.  It seems the initial social media presence was there to help build around MLB Battlegrounds and hopefully it will build up as the MLB UK team increases in size. Hill’s comments about having local offices in key areas around the world that know the local culture plays into this, as simply repackaging US content would seem a waste (for example, is it worth retweeting MLB account tweets when surely most following the MLB UK account would already be following the MLB one anyway?).   The value would come in building something that was distinctively a UK focused account that adds something different and unique to what we can find elsewhere.

An example of this would be from the play-offs last year when the MLB UK account started posting #Represent videos from fans. I thought it was a great idea when I saw it, only to be disappointed to find it was actually American fan videos with a MLB UK logo at the end. On an MLB UK account, I want to hear the passion of a Cubs fan from Cardiff rather than Chicago, who then inspires an Astros fan from Hull rather than Houston to post their video too.  All of that takes work to organise and encourage, which understandably is why that wasn’t the approach last year, but that’s the sort of thing that would help build the community even more.

The big (non-Brexit) European question

Whilst London games were the obvious elephant in the room in the podcast, there is another one that is perhaps a touchy subject for a UK fan to go near. On a few occasions Hill spoke of Europe and then focused in on London, which is great for us but may further irritate some in Europe who already feel hard done by. It wasn’t too long ago – 2010/2011 – that Italian and Netherlands authorities were being encouraged to bid for MLB games. Different people have different versions of that process, there were seemingly no firm guarantees from MLB, but ultimately over 12m Euros were invested in an impressive facility near Hoofdorp only for MLB to look to London instead.

We all know why London is such an attractive proposition for MLB – especially as they are notably lagging behind their fellow major North American sports by building a presence here – yet we can also understand that the Netherlands and Italy have made significant contributions to baseball in Europe.

MLB UK rightly should be focusing its efforts on making potential London games a success and not spreading itself too thin, yet in the longer term it would be good to know how they may support the wider European market.  In particular, I would love to see the MLB European Elite Camp be part of a “festival of baseball”, as Hill put it, perhaps playing an exhibition game or putting on a skills competition (home run derby, throwing accuracy, maybe even a Korean All-Star style bunt competition – although I think that may be going too far for a British audience!).

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Marcus March 11, 2018 - 1:32 pm

The other opportunity to attract fans is via baseball’s long lost cousin, cricket. I thought that including batsmen in the HR Derby last year was a great idea and it makes sense to associate with another sport that forms a much greater part of the national consciousness.
The problem I have with MLB UK is that there is no long-term strategy. Single events are fantastic but the impact is lost if no attempt is made to follow this up! The dormant Twitter account is symptomatic.

Matt Smith March 11, 2018 - 1:59 pm

Agreed that they need to follow things up to make them count for something. That seems to be the plan though and hopefully a long-term strategy will be articulated this year as that’s one of the things that will help everyone else get behind it.

The cricket link definitely is a good way to get a bit of coverage, as happened in years past with Ian Botham. We know that some in cricket will be sniffy of an ‘American game’, but Aussie greats like the Chappell brothers will be quick to say that their baseball playing experience as kids made a difference to Australia raising fielding standards in the 1970s and we’ve seen our own Will Lintern doing coaching work with Ireland in recent times.


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