December 2016 was a good month for British baseball fans. Conclusion of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLB and its players brought confirmation of the league’s intention to bring games to London in 2018.
Talk in some circles swiftly turned to the next question – who would it be? Which teams would play the first MLB game on European soil?
Sox President Sam Kennedy was quoted in the piece that the team “would really like to do it.”
His Yankees counterpart Randy Levine was equally effusive, noting that the Bombers brass were “…confident that we can play there soon. Playing the Red Sox in London would be a special and unique event.”
UK and Europe based fans of the game and the two clubs would be forgiven at this point for pinching themselves, fainting and thanking Santa Claus (or his local derivation) for an early Christmas gift.
It can’t get any better than the two marquee franchises of the MLB pitching up to European shores, can it?
But therein lies the rub.
Sure, a two game series between these two clubs would sell out in minutes and make a heady premium for those able to scalp tickets quickly enough. After all, the Yankees brand is globally iconic and the Red Sox storied history would be a draw even without their close ties to the UK via a shared ownership with one of our own ‘heritage brands’ – Liverpool FC.
The point isn’t that this wouldn’t be a great occasion, but precisely that it would be.
A Red Sox – Yankees match-up in London smacks of outright corporatism. An ‘after the event’ attempt to latch onto the coat tails of the NFL and NBA in order to garner a slice of the cash for the US’s oldest sport. Not to mention that these are the two clubs (along with the Dodgers) that barely need the potential financial boon that the fixtures themselves, and the attachment of new European fans, represent.
Levine’s own words somewhat give away the gambit – this would be a ‘unique event’.
Sure it would – two of the globe’s premium sports brands sweep through town, emptying wallets for jerseys, bobbleheads and cups, never to return. No roots laid down, no giving back, no attempt to turn local kids onto this wonderful game.
And that’s even before considering where MLB goes next. Where the NFL has succeeded has been – with the exception of Jacksonville – rotating the teams through their UK series. The game, the competition itself, is the event. Not the team, the franchise or the big names.
That’s helped build appreciation and awareness and arguably made it all the more special when the Brady helmed Patriots or a Peyton Manning team came to town. It wasn’t all about them, the fans appreciated the event all the more due to their understanding of the gravity of such an occasion.
None of this is to say that the whole idea is bad news. If and when the fixtures are announced I’ll be the first in line for tickets, regardless of the match up. If the Red Sox – my team – are in town you won’t be able to wipe the grin from my face.
But if the MLB London series is to fulfil its potential it must be about so much more than a corporate experience for city clients.
That aspect is unavoidable, but the high stakes, high glitz match-up reported by the Herald threatens to take the series away from what should be its real central aim – to stoke and ignite the passion of existing fans and pass this on to new ones.
If the Red Sox and Yankees come into town the threat is we see a sideshow, a curios and a flash in the pan – and that one-off chance could be spurned.
And if it is a sideshow? It fails.
If the roots aren’t laid down, no kids pick up a bat or a mitt, no universities start their own teams and no friends join the local scratch slowpitch team or ask the local pub to show the World Series.
Short term bump, for no long term gain.
Having spoken to the team at the MLB office in London, this clearly isn’t the plan. They believe in their product – so they should, they promote one of the greatest spectator sports in the world – and want to work with fans to improve our experience, carrying out surveys and asking opinions in a bid to get this right.
If I were able to share with them just one piece of advice, it would be this:
The sport is your product, and the unique atmosphere of the ballpark. Not the teams.
The NBA proves the point – their January London fixture between the Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers, neither household name franchises in the UK – sold out in less than 24 hours.
Those lucky enough to have attended a ballgame in the States will know it is quite unlike any other sporting occasion – leave those attending thinking of that, not pinstripes.
And remember this too – Jose Altuve plays for the Houston Astros, Mike Trout plays for the LA Angels and Nolan Arenado plays for the Colorado Rockies – and they’ll be aped in the playground far more readily than anyone on the current Yankees roster.
Plus, it’s about time we saw more varieties of baseball cap on the UK’s streets.