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European League update

by Matt Smith

Ever since the International Baseball Federation (IBAF) announced its plans to form a European league, fans of the sport have been impatiently waiting for further details. 

The IBAF’s initial statement simply introduced the idea of a major European league and touted 2010 as the probable start date.  The news frankly raised more questions than answers.  Having seen countless good ideas from within the sport come to nothing, it was to be expected that doubts would immediately emerge about whether anything would actually happen.  Ideas are one thing, turning them into reality (and into a success) is quite another.  At the very least, getting everything in place in little more than a year appeared to be wildly optimistic when so few actual details had apparently been confirmed. 

While the IBAF have remained quiet on the issue, concentrating as they are on the upcoming baseball tournament at the Beijing Olympics, we do now have a better idea of the plans being considered thanks to an interview by Dutch baseball writer Pim van Nes, recently published on Mister-Baseball.com. van Nes spoke to Robert Eenhorn, “technical director baseball of Dutch federation KNBSB”, who by the looks of things has been involved in putting these ideas to Major League Baseball.

What new information can we glean from this interview?

The exciting part is that Major League Baseball are (potentially) going to be involved in supporting the league.  The plans are due to be considered during a two day summit meeting of the thirty MLB owners on 13 and 14 August.  Clearly we will have to wait until this point before any firm details about the league will be announced.  Why would MLB want to support the league?  Well, on top of their general commitment to the globalisation of the sport, Europe has the potential to be a decent little market for ballplayers.  We’ve seen over the last few years that talent in places such as the Dominican Republic has started to rise greatly in price, to the extent that even fringe prospects are commanding low six-figure signing bonuses.  The pool of talent in Europe may not be very deep at present, but there are a few Rick van den Hurks out there and MLB teams may be able to pick them up at an attractive price in comparison to other territories.  Bringing the best European talent together will hopefully raise standards and also provide scouts with a slightly better idea of the players’ true ability.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that there will be any immediate benefit for British baseball clubs.  The tentative plans are initially focused on bringing together the top teams from the Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Germany, France and the Czech Republic.  There may be scope for British involvement in the future though.

The league will run during the autumn, increasing the probability of the best players being available to participate, and the plan is still to try and get the league up and running for 2010.  If a positive decision is made by the MLB owners in two weeks’ time, the IBAF would have just over two years to organize the inaugural staging of the league.  That’s certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.

The potential spanner in the works is the reported competing interests of the Italian baseball federation.  Pim van Nes’s article suggests that Italy are trying to push through plans to get backing from MLB for their own national project.  It’s difficult to assess quite how big a factor this may be.  Italy and the Netherlands are the two super powers in Europe and, from the outside, there appears to be a healthy amount of competition between the two off the field.  Both countries would like to play the leading role in shaping the future of European baseball. 

Whenever individual parties come together, there has to be an element of compromise and a willingness to concede a little ground for the common good.  In his excellent book about British Baseball, Josh Chetwynd noted the concerns raised by Mike Carlson (the outstanding NFL pundit and one-time MLB representative in Great Britain) about the way in which small power bases can impede progress.  Carlson referred to the ‘fiefdoms’ present in Britain during the 1990s and the way in which individuals protected their own interests, preferring to be a “big fish in a small pond”.  If a European League backed by MLB would benefit all parties, you would hope that those involved could work together to make it a success.

There are competitions between the best clubs in Europe already, most notably  the European Cup and the CEB Cup; however, with the potential backing of MLB, a ‘Champions League’ style tournament could herald a new and exciting era for baseball within the continent.  The decision made by MLB in mid-August could therefore be of great importance.  We shall have to wait and see what transpires.

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1 comment

Joe Gray July 31, 2008 - 9:06 pm

Hi Matt,

Thanks for keeping us updated on this story. Like you say, it looks unlikely to have an immediate effect on British baseball if it does go ahead, but I suspect that if MLB did back it then it would not hurt Britain’s chance of getting a team in the league in the future (going by the willingness of other US sports to hold major events in London in recent years).



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