The sight of England cricketers Jos Buttler and Alex Hales clubbing balls into the horizon may be nothing new, but there is something different about the context of their latest big-hitting exploits.
For one, Buttler and Hales will be swapping the genteel surrounds of Lord’s for Hyde Park in full summertime festival mode, with its backdrop of loud music and food trucks.
The other departure is that they will not be playing cricket but baseball – or rather a shortened form of the American sport called a Home Run Derby, which amounts to a timed slogging contest – alongside former stars of the Boston Red Sox and LA Dodgers.
This evening’s free event is the most visible sign yet of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) intention to follow its American football and basketball counterparts the NFL and NBA in taking a slice of the British sports market.
It also marks a ratcheting up of activity as MLB chiefs close in on their target of hosting regular-season games in London.
The capital is their prime candidate for a first MLB match in Europe and agreement is approaching on a deal that would see at least one series of two to four games staged here every year for several years.
When will MLB games come to London?
“It’s the worst kept secret in London that we’re looking to play games in Europe and the UK is obviously a priority market,” Charlie Hill, MLB’s London-based managing director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, told City A.M.
“We expect that to happen in the next couple of years. We think 2019 is a realistic target. All looks good for that.
“Events like this are important steps towards delivering not just a game of baseball like you’d see in the US but a meaningful experience in London that’s going to capture people’s imaginations. That’s the ultimate context to this whole thing.”
Where will it be held?
The former Olympic Stadium is a possible venue for a series, though Hill insists MLB has successfully identified “other options”. “It is a candidate but it’s not the only one,” he added.
Matches would likely take place during the middle of summer, due to the greater chance of favourable weather and a lighter sporting calendar, and over the course of a weekend.
Talk of London matches is nothing new, of course. Plans to launch in 2017 were delayed by a new collective bargaining agreement and MLB’s own need to design a strategy to capitalise on its visits. Both are now in place, Hill says.
“What’s really important for us is we don’t just play a game for the sake of it [or] because that’s what other sports do, but we find a way of embedding our sport in a city or a country and making sure it has a proper legacy 12 months a year,” he said.
“It’s important for us to build that strategy. We have now and we feel good about what we are trying to do.”
A City takeover
MLB already stages matches overseas, in Asia and Latin America, but is yet to take the plunge in Europe, which does not have the same baseball tradition as those destinations.
With that it mind, Hill says MLB hopes to entice non-baseball fans by framing London matches as part of a festival of the sport that also incorporates block parties, street food events and live music.
It is a model already in use for its All Star weekend, a roadshow that alights in a different city each year and typically generates $70m in direct economic benefits for its host location, according to MLB.
“It’s a city takeover essentially and a festival atmosphere. That’s the kind of model we have in mind when we think about what we want to do in Europe when we bring games,” Hill said.
“That is also what Tuesday in Hyde Park is about. It’s as much about the festival feel – the food and the music and this sporting event which is very different.
“It’s the first steps towards defining what regular-season MLB games in London or somewhere else in Europe should feel like.”