Baseball late to UK party, but London Series has major chance of success
MLB will make history in 2019 when it stages the league's first games in the United Kingdom but, in keeping with the hierarchy in North American sports, it is a move indicative of just how far behind the NFL and the NBA it is.
The New York Yankees will take on the Boston Red Sox in a two-game series to be held at London Stadium on June 29 and 30.
International games are nothing new to MLB. Mexico, Japan and Australia have all staged matches but, in terms of tapping into the UK market, it is 12 years behind the NFL and eight behind the NBA.
However, the profile of the matchup taking place at the 2012 Olympic Stadium could not be more impressive.
While only five of the 32 NFL teams have never played an International Series game and London has regularly staged at least three matches a season, true marquee clashes have been lacking, though that should change in 2018 with Super Bowl champions the Philadelphia Eagles taking on a Jacksonville Jaguars team fresh off an AFC Championship game appearance.
Similarly, NBA games to be held at the O2 Arena had been light on star power until Kyrie Irving graced the capital for the Boston Celtics' win over the Philadelphia 76ers this year.
Old rivalry. New ground. MLB presents the #LondonSeries: Boston @RedSox vs. New York @Yankees at London Stadium on June 29th & 30th 2019. Register now for pre-sale ticket access at https://t.co/xRy7IjGkfu pic.twitter.com/P0ausGpMV9— MLB (@MLB) May 8, 2018
Right off the bat, however, MLB is bringing its biggest and most famous rivalry to London and at a time when the Yankees and Red Sox are proving fearsome forces once again – they are tied for a 25-10 record atop the American League East.
MLB has some advantages over United States' two dominant leagues in being able to convince teams to travel. With a 162-game regular season, baseball franchises are likely to be more willing to give up home games than NFL teams that only play in front of their home fans eight times - not including playoffs.
The NBA schedule is long enough to lessen the financial impact of giving up a home game, but the fatigue of long-haul travel is more keenly felt by teams who have much smaller rosters in a sport that is not as subject to rotation as baseball is.
With those advantages at its disposal it is a wonder why MLB did not make the move to compete in a market where the NFL and NBA are consistently growing in popularity at an earlier date.
Major League Baseball is coming to London. Yesterday’s announcement is a major coup, demonstrating once again that London is the sporting capital of the world. #LondonIsOpen pic.twitter.com/XzkRIy0YLQ— Mayor of London (@MayorofLondon) May 9, 2018
But in another way the timing is advantageous to MLB, which is arriving on British shores at a time where the UK's dominant summer sport, cricket, is struggling for an identity, with a new 100-ball domestic competition proposed by the England and Wales Cricket Board in an effort to attract new fans drawing widely mixed reviews.
The prospect of baseball overtaking cricket in popularity across the pond is a pipe dream. Yet, at a time when MLB is making a concerted effort to improve the pace of play, bringing arguably the two biggest franchises in the sport to the UK should improve its standing in the British market and attract new fans.
Lagging behind the NFL and the NBA both in the USA and internationally, baseball is late to the party in pushing to have a legitimate presence in the UK. Still, between the relative success of its competitors, cricket's identity crisis and their ability to sign up the league's big guns to make the journey, it still has a very good shot of succeeding.