LONDON – Baseball is hoping to develop a fan base in the United Kingdom, a country that much prefers bowlers and wicket-keepers to pitchers and catchers.
Over the past 20 years, baseball has dealt with the steroid crisis, declining attendance and the rise of literally every other sport in the United States.
Now, America’s pastime must tackle its stiffest opponent since it butchered cricket: the Great British Summer.
For the first time in its history, Major League Baseball is taking regular-season games to the home of the most popular bat-and-ball sport in the world. The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox will play twice, on Saturday and Sunday, in London.
And despite the city’s reputation, the weather is expected to be glorious. That’s part of the problem.
Baseball’s bid to capture a local audience falls right in the middle of the most precious weeks on the British calendar, the rare time when the gloom lifts, the sun shines until nearly 10 pm and the sidewalks outside pubs become the most sought-after real estate in the country.
The Yankees and Red Sox will also have to compete for attention with the enormous Glastonbury music festival and, on the sports front, a slate of games at the Cricket World Cup, which is being held there right now.
Australia playing New Zealand and England taking on India at cricket are the kinds of things that get noticed in Britain.
“It’s a huge weekend,” said Steve Elworthy, the managing director of the Cricket World Cup. “England-India is one of the biggest cricket matches in the world.”
The Yankees and Red Sox, meanwhile, could be best described as the biggest baseball game that happens 19 times every season. As of Monday evening, tickets were still available on StubHub for the baseball games for under $65, though some are much higher.
Tickets for New Zealand vs. Australia at Lord’s Cricket Ground in London start at three times that price.
“Whatever weekend you look at there’s another event going on in London,” said Charlie Hill, who oversees MLB’s efforts in the UK.
Baseball is hoping to develop a fan base in a country that will have you know that it much prefers bowlers and wicket-keepers to pitchers and catchers.
By the time modern baseball took shape in America in the mid-19th century, Britain had been playing cricket for more than 100 years. It didn’t pay much attention to baseball then, nor has it paid much attention to it since.
That said, Britain does have a national team – ranked 38th in the world, just behind Lithuania, just ahead of Peru – and a four-team top division. To tell you how far this is from the realities of American baseball, the first-place team in Britain’s National Baseball League is called the London Mets.
Most people in the country know next to nothing about the sport, something MLB is working to combat.
The league is sending a link to a Baseball 101 web page to everybody in its London Series database. Concession stands at the stadium will sell portable radios so confused fans can listen to live explanations.
All of which makes MLB’s foray into London different from any of its previous events abroad. Japan and Mexico, two frequent sites of regular-season MLB games, have robust baseball cultures. Even Australia, which hosted two contests in 2014, is considerably more familiar with baseball than the UK.
“We don’t want to just be strong where we already have a baseball culture,” MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said. “We want to grow and expand into areas where baseball is not being played.”
The far reaches of East London certainly fit that bill. After struggling to find a suitable venue, MLB landed at the London Stadium.
During the 2012 Olympics, it hosted some of Britain’s most memorable sporting moments. Since then, however, the stadium has become the unloved home of the West Ham soccer team.
Fans complain that the London Stadium is sterile, soulless and offers worse sightlines than watching from the international space station.
Baseball didn’t have much choice. Most soccer stadiums are too narrow to fit a baseball diamond.
A cricket pitch is better suited, which is why MLB staged its games in Australia at the Sydney Cricket Ground. But with the Cricket World Cup under way, that wasn’t an option in England.
The London Stadium has a track around the soccer pitch, which creates enough room for a baseball field, albeit one where the fence in center field is just 385 feet from home plate and the foul territory is the size of several English counties.
MLB also opted for turf instead of grass, because it was given about three weeks to prepare the surface and has just five days to return it to its natural state.
Another challenge: Many of the local contractors MLB hired for the job had no idea what they were building.
“After we explained what the foul pole was, somebody asked, ‘So why don’t they call it a fair pole?’” said Murray Cook, MLB’s senior field coordinator. “We wound up in a very detailed discussion about the foul pole.”
MLB hopes that fans will match the enthusiasm British supporters have shown for the NFL’s International Series.
American football has managed to establish a legitimate following in London and has even explored putting a team there full-time. Though a cult following has existed since the 1980s, the NFL piled on with a brute-force approach, bringing games to the UK every year since 2007.
Whether baseball is willing to spend a decade trying to break into London remains to be seen.
MLB is returning next season with the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals but has no publicly announced plans beyond that.
MLB is casting a wide cultural net to court Londoners. They’ll sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch and have vendors hawking beer and hot dogs in the aisles.
There will be a mascot race featuring likenesses of Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII and the Loch Ness Monster. (The Yankee Stadium tradition of having the grounds crew lead a rendition of “Y.M.C.A.” is also being imported, for better or worse.)
MLB has made it clear who it wants in the stadium this weekend: real Europeans, not American expats and tourists. Barbara McHugh, MLB’s senior vice president for marketing, said that 70 percent of the roughly 120,000 available tickets – which sold out almost immediately – were bought in the UK.
About 20 percent came from the US, with the rest being sold throughout the rest of the world.
MLB doesn’t know how many Americans bought tickets on the secondary market.
Either way, it’s safe to say that the Cricket World Cup isn’t overly concerned about baseball cannibalizing its attendances.
In fact, it isn’t thinking much about baseball at all.
“We’ve got a netball World Cup. There’s Wimbledon. There’s a lot of other sports going on at the same time as our tournament,” Elworthy said. “To be honest, I’m just thinking about the Cricket World Cup.”