Almost 70 years after Glasgow-born Bobby Thomson hit baseball’s Shot Heard ‘Round the World, the echo has finally reached London.
This weekend, Major League Baseball will join its cousins from the NFL and NBA in offering British fans the opportunity to see regular season games live on their own turf.
Given the New York Giants and Miami Dolphins came to Wembley in 2007 and the Toronto Raptors and New York Nets clashed at the O2 just four years later, it is fair to say that MLB has taken its time in making the leap of faith across the pond.
There have been perfectly good reasons for the delay. The NFL caught a TV scheduling break in the early 1980s, hoovering up a Sunday night audience less than enamoured by Songs of Praise, Highway or the Money Programme.
This spawned a significant, sustained and knowledgeable following for the sport in the UK, including a large hardcore fanbase that has become extremely well catered for by Sky Sports and, more recently, terrestrial coverage of the Super Bowl. Selling out multiple matches at Wembley, Twickenham and, from this season, a further brace of fixtures at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium has become a formality.
The NBA, meanwhile, could rely on a combination of basketball’s position as a truly global, Olympic sport as well as its prominence in British street culture to sell out matches at the O2. By comparison, baseball has remained a relatively niche sport, tucked away late at night for many years on Channel 5 and only recently gaining a foothold on BT Sport.
Whereas the NFL and NBA have ensured the associated marketing of their visits has given a real sense of the circus coming to town, baseball has made only the occasional foray into the UK market with its biggest stars.
It’s tough to fathom why. On a brief visit by home-run maestro Sammy Sosa in 2000, he dazzled an audience of media and dumbstruck Surrey cricketers by frequently clearing the Oval boundary from the opposite side of the ground – double the distance of a six at one of cricket’s biggest arenas. The fascination was clear for all to see.
But delay or no delay, nobody can accuse the MLB of doing things by halves. The London Stadium is about to host a double-header series between two of the most famous sporting brands in the world who constitute the biggest and oldest rivalry in US sport.
The Boston Red Sox will take on perhaps the most iconic franchise in American – and possibly world – sport, the New York Yankees.
The Curse of the Bambino, resulting from the controversial sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1918, may have been laid to rest in 2004 when the Red Sox regained the World Series after 86 years, but the rivalry continues undimmed.
This year, it’s the Yankees with revenge on their minds, having lost to the Red Sox in the 2018 American League Division Series – essentially a World Series quarter-final – on their way to winning the World Series for the fourth time in 15 years.
This is, without doubt, the strongest hand MLB can play as it seeks to expand its audience in the UK. And it’s working. As the spectral voice in Field of Dreams tells Kevin Costner, “If you build it, they will come” – and UK baseball fans indeed will.
Tickets sold out almost instantly despite prices that could, at best, be described as premium in comparison to the equivalent fixture at Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium. It may be the wrong sort of Moneyball for many but, as the NFL and NBA before them, MLB has discovered there is an enthusiastic audience here willing to pay for the real deal in American sports.
Does this mean baseball will become part of the British sporting calendar in the same way that the NFL and NBA have with their frequent regular season matches? It’s clearly premature to suggest as much, not least because it won’t always be the Red Sox and Yankees meeting on British soil. The real test will come next year, when the London Series will see the Chicago Cubs meet the St Louis Cardinals, and in the years that follow when potential match-ups may not quite be on a par with this summer’s clash.
Only if the commercial success of this summer’s series can be repeated will MLB truly understand if its pitch for the UK market is in the right ball-park.
Neil Hopkins in the global head of strategy at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment