For most Brits, baseball remains a bit of a mystery. While American expats have formed amateur leagues in the UK for decades, the sport has never gained much traction with the general public. But that may be starting to change.
Tens of thousands of UK fans flocked to London Stadium in 2019 to watch the Boston Red Sox take on the New York Yankees in the first-ever MLB regular season games played in Europe. They followed that up with another impressive attendance showing this past June to watch the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. The London Series’ success has led the MLB to commit to more games in London in the future, further proof that it seems the British are finally coming around to America’s pastime.
A Nation of Rounders Players Discovers Baseball
While baseball and its early predecessor rounders share some similarities, they are decidedly different games. Rounders uses posts instead of bases and involve less specialized positions. Most Brits grow up playing rounders in gym class, which is likely why baseball seems somewhat familiar across the pond. It also has a few comparisons to cricket as well. But familiarity alone doesn’t explain baseball’s rising popularity in Britain.
Part of baseball’s newfound appeal has to do with increased exposure. This year, games were broadcast on BBC for the first time, and the London Series received widespread media coverage. The more UK fans watch baseball, the more likely they are to gain an appreciation for its nuances. Baseball might seem slow and confusing initially, but it rewards those who invest time in learning its intricacies. And the more British fans understand the game, the more they tend to enjoy it.
MLB Makes a Savvy Move Across the Pond
The MLB has made strategic efforts to grow the popularity of baseball in Britain, focused on engaging with UK sports culture. Pre-game fan festivals in London emphasized baseball’s fun atmosphere to resonate with British fans. The league marketed historic team rivalries like Red Sox vs. Yankees to attract interest.
More recently, the MLB scheduled games in London between the Cubs and Cardinals in 2023, indicating a long-term commitment to building UK fandom. The Cubs and Cardinals played a two-game series in London on June 24-25 as part of the MLB London Series. More than 54,000 people each day filled the seats to watch these two rivals play. This continued MLB’s efforts to grow the popularity of baseball in Europe, hoping to replicate the NFL’s success overseas. Already, the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies have committed to play in London in June 2024.
But perhaps the MLB’s most brilliant move was including the London Series in season ticket packages. This ensured British baseball supporters would fill the stands regardless of general interest across the country. If even a small fraction of these fans get hooked on baseball, the London Series will have done its job. The baseball playoffs starting up this week, the MLB betting odds will not just be a popular play for Americans but also the British who are becoming more interested in the sport.
MLB hopes that playing in London will grow the sport overseas much like it has in other parts of the world, such as Central and South America. While there have been 50 British-born players to play in the Major Leagues, there have only been 10 since World War II, and most of their tenures were very short. The most successful was Glasgow’s Bobby Thomson who played 15 seasons, made three All-Star Games, and hit the famous “Shot Heard Round the World” that won the Giants the 1951 pennant. Other noteworthy players who had long stints include Northampton’s Danny Cox and Bedford’s Lance Painter.
Baseball Offers Brits an Escape from the Familiar
It may seem odd that a nation steeped in cricket and football tradition would embrace such an American pastime. But for some Brits, baseball’s foreignness is part of the appeal. It represents a chance to experience something entirely new. Baseball provides an exciting escape from the predictable rhythms of familiar UK sports. Fans can enjoy baseball’s laid-back vibe without the tribal loyalties and tensions attached to football.
Baseball also caters to Britain’s growing appetite for American culture. Just look at the popularity of US television shows and music. Additionally, American football has slowly grown overseas. For Anglophile Americans, part of baseball’s charm is its history and tradition. UK fans seem to appreciate those same qualities, albeit from a British perspective. Baseball’s quirky superstitions and customs fascinate those raised on cricket’s more genteel and understated ethos.
Youth Baseball Initiatives Plant Seeds for Future
While MLB games capture public attention, youth baseball development will be crucial for growing the British game long-term. Programs like MLB’s Play Ball initiative and the BaseballSoftballUK Academy are working hard to expose more UK kids to baseball. Youth participation has already increased 15% since 2010.
Some credit for this goes to the London Series hype. Children who attended games or watched on TV are now inspired to try playing baseball themselves. Seeing top players up close and in person provides powerful motivation. However, sustaining youth interest will require continued investment in fields, equipment, and instruction. If access and opportunity expand, so will youth participation.
Baseball Finds Fertile Ground in Post-Brexit Britain
Whether baseball can shift from niche interest to becoming a mainstream sport in the UK remains to be seen. But the timing may be suitable for just such a transformation. Britain is searching for a new identity in the post-Brexit landscape. Partnerships with American institutions suddenly seem more vital following the split from Europe. These cultural and political conditions could generate unprecedented support for building British baseball.
The UK has a chance to rally around baseball as a distinctive new national pastime moving forward. Baseball would still have niche appeal compared to juggernauts like football and cricket. But it’s not hard to imagine British baseball leagues, tournaments, and even a national team emerging over the next decade or two. The MLB has kicked down the door; now it’s up to UK fans and entrepreneurs to decide whether to walk through it.
The early returns from the London Series show that baseball has piqued Britain’s curiosity. Only time will tell whether the UK will fully embrace the American pastime. But the future looks bright for a sport that was foreign to most Brits just a few years ago. The ingredients are in place for baseball to carve out a permanent spot in the UK sports landscape.