You might think it a little premature and probably quite ungrateful to be talking about baseball in the UK beyond 2020. We literally just had a series in London for the first time ever and the only thing I care to talk about is what might happen in two years time?
You’d probably have a point. But I’m greedy. And that first series made me excited for another (which we have, in 2020, between the Cubs and Cardinals) and more after that. The very first question that Rob Manfred fielded in his press conference at the London Stadium before game one was about his office’s plans for European baseball beyond 2020.
Coyly, he answered then: “Whether or not we play in Europe in 2021 will be a product of how the next couple of years go. My own view is that I would like to have sustained play in Europe.”
He later indicated that whilst London was the host city for MLB’s first foray into games in Europe, he would like to extend that remit into other major cities on the continent. This was a sentiment that was backed up a couple of weeks back when he made a similar statement on Baseball Tonight:
This, understandably could cause a bit of panic for UK-based fans who probably feel as though Manfred is trying to find an excuse to break things off with them seconds after a kiss they spent 25 years waiting for.
That the London Series was a success seems almost indisputable, with players, coaches and fans alike praising the experience – yet Manfred seems insistent that future endeavours be made across Europe.
So why is this? Well, the reasons are pretty compelling:
1. European fandom does not start and end with the United Kingdom.
In much the same way that fans in other parts of the country begrudged the ‘London Series’ tag on an event that extended far beyond the reach of the capital, fans from mainland Europe must have felt a little peeved that – just as with the NFL – they had been spurned in favour of the UK once again.
Baseball is massive in the Netherlands (one of the London Series weekend’s cooler moments came when a reporter asked Xander Bogaerts a question in Dutch) where an MLB-spec baseball complex already exists, and countries like Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic enjoy sizeable followings of the sport too. Seems a bit selfish not to give them the same experience we had.
2. Major League Baseball talent is coming through mainland Europe.
When asked how he would judge the success of MLB’s foray into Europe, Manfred suggested there were two key factors. Firstly, fan engagement: buying tickets, watching MLB.TV or game broadcasts, wearing Yankees caps, LISTENING TO PODCASTS, buying merchandise etc.
The other factor was player development. In Max Kepler, MLB have a bonafide European superstar playing for a World Series contender. That does not happen very often. Manfred also cited around 20 players in various organisations who have developmental routes that started in Europe. Major League Baseball increasingly host development camps in locations across Europe and clearly see it as a potential pipeline of talent.
The hope, of course, is that the United Kingdom will contribute to that talent pool in due course. But right now, MLB sees quality players coming out of the mainland and wants to capitalise on that link.
3. Leave ’em wanting more
Could MLB have left a better first impression in Europe? Probably not. Next year is likely to be a fantastic encore but sometimes less is more. Packed stadiums, glorious sunshine and exciting run fests are brilliant advertisements for baseball but these things aren’t year-on-year guarantees. Perhaps it’s better that MLB love ’em and leave ’em?
The same goes the other way of course. Could London/UK/Europe have given a better first impression? Excited crowds that by and large stayed late, near flawless logistical operations and quotes like
“The most fans I’ve ever played in front of. That was awesome.”
from players (Luke Voit). If next year is a similar success, the return of MLB to London will be a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’.
So, let’s speculate for a moment. The current ‘collective bargaining agreement’ (the basic contract that described the rules of employment for players) expires in 2021, and any new agreement seems likely to contain details about the future of international play. Announcements outside of this window are likely too, but when it comes to the ‘sustained play in Europe’ dream that Manfred has, the route to this is likely to come through the CBA.
Given the complexities of arranging these two series in London, I’d say time is already ticking on a new venture for 2021. If Manfred is serious about holding games in Amsterdam, or Berlin, or Barcelona, then the work starts now. Given we’ve received little beyond vague lip service with regards to those efforts, we can almost start ruling out a 2021 series in mainland Europe now.
Instead, my guess is that if 2020 is a success in London, we either see further series take place in the UK’s capital in 2021 and 2022 – or we see no games in Europe at all in those years. Manfred and MLB will then likely use the next CBA as a chance to map out a comprehensive international strategy that will probably include pretty concrete details on European games – with something like a commitment to a series every year through 2025/26 in cities beyond London.
There is, of course, a chance that MLB decide that their European experiment simply isn’t worth it. The financial investment required for a meaningful long term presence in Europe is extortionate, and MLB remain some distance behind the NFL and NBA when it comes to this project. It’s not that MLB can’t afford that kind of investment, but they may decide that alternative markets – like East Asia or Mexico – warrant prioritised attention.
Indeed, it was only in 2014 that Opening Day games were played in Australia – and MLB has not decided to return since and seems to have few plans to do so. The lesson here perhaps then, is to enjoy it whilst we can. It’s an enormously exciting time to be a fan of baseball in the UK, and through programmes like the ‘Fun At Bat’ schools initiative and development camps across Europe, it’s clear that MLB’s commitment to baseball in the UK is unwavering – at least for the moment.
Beyond 2020, who knows. But any talk of games further afield in Europe will not be the death knoll of MLB’s British experiment – quite the opposite in fact…