Yankees and Red Sox Bring Baseball to London. Will Brits Care?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Major League Baseball is coming to London this weekend. Will the Brits take to America’s national pastime?
My mother, as ever, provides the answer. When she visited me in the U.S. three years ago, I took her to see the San Francisco Giants play at home against the L.A. Dodgers. She enjoys live sports, so it seemed a good way to steep her in Americana.
She loved it. But after almost every play, she turned to me and asked, “Sorry, darling, but can you explain what just happened?”
This is why baseball both will and won’t work in the U.K. It’s a complex game – I, a devoted sports fan, also struggle to grasp its idiosyncrasies. It’s a tough ask unless you’re steeped in it. But it’s also a terrific day out. There’s plenty of beer on offer, for one: that seldom goes down poorly over here.
The bigger issue is the way that the organizers have approached this trip abroad, which will see the New York Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox on Saturday and Sunday at the London Stadium – the home of the 2012 Olympic Games. Most Londoners I’ve spoken to don’t even know it’s happening. The league has failed to hype it successfully.
Tickets have been on sale since late last year, but as of Thursday there were still plenty available via Live Nation Entertainment Inc.’s Ticketmaster and eBay Inc.’s StubHub. And this is for the Yankees and the Red Sox, two of the sport’s best-known franchises in its most contentious rivalry. Perhaps baseball administrators thought that would be a big draw. But the Boston Red Sox means as much to most Londoners as Tottenham Hotspur means to your average Bostonian. Nothing.
Tickets for the autumn National Football League series of six London games went on sale yesterday, and sold out within hours. If you can find any for the Oct. 13 matchup between the Carolina Panthers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, two of the worst-performing teams in their conference last year, then you’re a miracle worker.
Major League Baseball has done an horrendous job at raising awareness. That’s partly to do with the timing, and the league is at fault for that as well. The inaugural games are slap bang in the middle of the Cricket World Cup, which also happens to be in England this year. It’s the British sport which is most analogous to baseball, and ought therefore to appeal to a similar audience. MLB should have known that the one group of Brits more inclined to give the sport a chance is likely to be otherwise engaged.
If you’re not going to sell baseball on its sporting merits, you have to make it a real event, an occasion. When the NFL and National Basketball Association bring regular season games to the U.K., they secure blanket media coverage. Even in the past week, when you might expect there to be significantly more baseball coverage, Google Trends reveals there’s been far more British interest in the NBA and NFL than MLB.
Baseball’s at a disadvantage. Britons have gotten used to the circus that the NFL brings to town. It’s how we’ve come to understand American sports: Regent Street bedecked in NFL bunting; cheerleaders posing with the Mayor of London; the players doing a week of press. Baseball offers a more stolid form of entertainment that doesn’t lend itself to hoopla as readily.
And while an NFL side has just 16 regular season games, a baseball team plays 162 times. That means they simply can’t be in London a week in advance to help build the hype: their schedule doesn’t allow it. The Yankees played at home to the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday, while the Red Sox hosted the Chicago White Sox. The weekend's London games will draw crowds, but the city is not consumed with baseball fever in the same way it is when the NFL's in town.
I have little doubt that baseball will grow in popularity. Let’s not forget that it’s 12 years since the NFL arrived in London with just one regular season game. But Major League Baseball needs to take a leaf out of football’s book, and bring a little more pomp and circumstance to its London outings. Then maybe I can again convince my mum to come out to the ball game.
(Corrects start date of ticket sales in sixth paragraph.)
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Alex Webb is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe's technology, media and communications industries. He previously covered Apple and other technology companies for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.
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