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‘Iterated localisation’ | Major League Baseball’s international approach

The sport of baseball’s relatively small global footprint provides Major League Baseball with its great challenge in international rights sales. But in its favour are a handful of markets where baseball is extremely popular and some of the most storied imagery in world sport – from the interlocking letters of the New York Yankees logo to the universal concept of the baseball bat itself.

This leads MLB to approach target markets outside North America in very different ways. The big baseball markets have been served with major events such as pre- and regular-season games since the 1990s. Markets with little baseball culture but huge potential, such as China, are the focus of grassroots and academy initiatives. In Western Europe, where there are small pockets of wealthy fans, MLB has historically played on its strength as a fashion and lifestyle brand.

SportBusiness International spoke to Chris Park, MLB’s executive vice president – product and marketing, one of the executives in charge of the league’s international business, to explore its approach in further detail. Park’s resume underlines the sophistication behind modern US major sports league management. He’s a Harvard Law School graduate, and his first role at MLB was in the labour department, advising on agreements with players. He spent a couple of years in California working first with Facebook and then at his own startup Concision Labs, before returning to MLB. He explained the goals and thinking underpinning MLB’s international business, and how this is applied in its priority markets.

First, some numbers

Like the other major American leagues, the vast majority of MLB revenues are from its domestic market. MLB doesn’t publish its international revenues, but it was reported in several media sources that in 2013 they accounted for less than 10 per cent of overall revenue. Total revenue that year was between $8bn (€6.7bn) and $8.5bn, according to Forbes. This year, overall revenue is expected to be over $10bn.

Japan dominates the revenue picture among overseas markets. In 2012, it accounted for nearly 70 per cent of international revenues according to Sports Illustrated, mainly due to a $475m-per-year media rights deal with the Dentsu agency. That deal has since been renewed to cover the 2016 to 2020 seasons.

One of MLB’s strongest cards when it comes to appealing to overseas audiences is the diversity of nationalities among its players. In 2017, 30 per cent were from outside the US, from 19 countries in total: the Dominican Republic (93 players), Venezuela (77), Cuba (23), Mexico (nine), Japan (eight), Canada (six), South Korea (four), Curacao and Nicaragua (four each), Panama (three); Australia, Brazil and Colombia (two apiece); and Aruba, Germany, Netherlands, Taiwan and the US Virgin Islands (one each).

Infrastructure

MLB’s activity outside the US is primarily run by two departments: International Business Operations, which is devoted to the task, and the Marketing team, which works on the US and overseas, managing assets such as websites. Chris Park oversees the international offices and plays a central role in developing international strategy.

Decision-making on international business starts at the top with commissioner Rob Manfred and other senior executives. “Material strategic business development outside of the US is one of the commissioner’s highest priorities”, Park says.

There is also an ‘international committee’ of owners from MLB clubs that meets to discuss international business and which feeds into the strategy.

Three years ago, Park and MLB chief operating officer Tony Petitti overhauled MLB’s approach to international business, using research and data analysis to select new priority markets, and putting more decision-making power into the hands of overseas offices. The latter, Park says, was “to reflect the need to achieve a more localised approach”. 

Further development and execution of the broad strategy created by the top executives and club owners is handled by International Business Operations, which has an office in New York, and four offices around the world. The locations of these offices indicate the league’s priority territories: Beijing, London (covering Europe, Middle East and Africa), Tokyo, and Mexico City.

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Philosophy and approach

Commissioner Manfred’s ambition, Park says, “is for baseball to be a truly global sport. To be a trusted cultural and entertainment institution” in communities around the world.

MLB sees itself as a flag-bearer not just for its own organisation, but also for the sport of baseball. This is visible in MLB’s role in launching the World Baseball Classic (essentially baseball’s ‘World Cup’) and its grassroots development projects in China (see below). 

When MLB surveys international markets, it identifies what it considers the most important baseball ‘communities’. These are disparate, and the strategy for each is heavily tailored.

“What perhaps sets the commissioner’s vision apart,” Park says, “is that he and our organisation think of international development less as an exercise in globalisation, and more as an exercise in iterated localisation. By which I mean we don’t believe our portfolio of products and services and other brand offerings is akin to a fire hose that we just provide access to around the world and then distribution and engagement necessarily follow.

“We believe that our path to growth has to go one community, one market at a time and the strategies and the choices that we make have be very carefully calibrated, taking into account what we have been historically and what we aim to be.

“Over the century-and-a-half in which MLB has come to be, the brand has evolved into a really diverse identity,” Park says. “We are of course ‘the national pastime’, one of the strongest entertainment brands in the United States and across the world, but we also have different ancillary identities. We are a technology company, we are an enterprise, we are an education partner, we are a fashion brand, we are a soft diplomat. So, when we localise our strategies around the world, we try to leverage whatever makes the most sense across that portfolio of identities and what will connect best to meet the needs and the desires of the community that we are trying to serve.

“Our hope is that if we do this well, time after time, starting with the communities that warrant immediate focus, you will eventually see us one day as a truly global brand, with a genuinely international footprint. But we don’t believe that there are shortcuts to get there. We think we have to take each community really seriously, even if that means in some cases taking radically different postures or plans of attack depending on where we are.”

To understand the markets and communities, Park says MLB “try to be data-driven wherever we have the opportunity”. It uses a mixture of data acquired from third parties and publicly available data such as World Bank figures, plus its own internal data. Sources of internal data include audience figures from television and internet streaming, and live event marketing.

“It’s not rocket science how we do it, but we try to take everything relative into account, then distil them into unified visions of these various markets, then make our resource allocation decisions and our strategic decisions accordingly,” Park says.

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Priority markets

When it comes to selecting priority international markets, Park says: “We take seriously the communities that give us the best chance to make a really transformative impact on our brand”. Currently, those are Japan, China, Mexico and Western Europe.

(i) Japan
Japan is one of the biggest, if not the biggest, baseball markets outside the US, and accounts for the majority of MLB’s overseas revenue.

Assets and activities:

  • Office in Tokyo, opened 2003
  • Japan is the most valuable overseas media rights territory. MLB has a long-term media rights distribution relationship with the Dentsu agency, which sublicenses rights to Japanese broadcasters. The current deal runs 2016-2020
  • Games and events:
    • MLB Japan All-Star Series – from 1986 to 2006, and once in 2014, an MLB all-star team played a Japanese league all-star team every two years. The MLB’s latest collective bargaining agreement with its players indicates this series will resume, with games taking place in 2018 and 2020
    • Pre-season games – in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, MLB teams played pre-season games against each other in Tokyo, drawing crowds of up to 55,000
    • Regular-season games – the season-opening game of the 2019 season is to take place in Japan, in another development set out in the collective bargaining agreement

(ii) China
Baseball was played in China as far back as the 19th century, but fell foul of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-20th century when it was dismissed by authorities as being too Western. Today, it is a niche sport in the country. But, Park says, China is uniquely interesting for MLB given its size and economic growth.

MLB is heavily focused on athlete development in China. Leon Xie, director of MLB China, told Bloomberg last year: “One of MLB’s primary goals is to develop local stars. It’s necessary to have a Chinese superstar. For the sport to be a local sport without a local star, it’s impossible. The market ignites when there’s a superstar.”

In December 2017, MLB announced a 10-year partnership with Chinese state-owned property developer Beijing Enterprises Real-Estate Group to develop MLB-branded baseball facilities across the country, including up to 20 youth baseball academies. Since 2009, MLB has operated three such academies in China. They have begun to bear fruit, with three players so far signing professional MLB contracts, although none has yet broken through as a major star. 

MLB runs primary school programmes to find players to feed the academies, has programming on the CETV state educational channel, and this year partnered on a TV series aimed at teens and starring a local boy band as a group of young players trying to turn around the ailing fortunes of their high school team.

Assets and activities:

  • Office in Beijing, opened 2007
  • Three MLB Development Centres (youth player academies) based in Changzhou, Wuxi and Nanjing. MLB has paid the education and living expenses of around 100 players since opening the centers in 2009
  • MLB Play Ball Initiative, which visits primary schools looking for talented children aged 12 to 14 for the development centres
  • Media-rights deal with LeSports: three-year deal, 2016-18, streaming 125 live games per season in China, Hong Kong and Macau, with coverage produced in Mandarin.
  • Media-rights deal with CETV: broadcasting MLB programming on a TV network for schools and universities
  • Boyhood, baseball-themed TV show aimed at teens that MLB partnered with local TV producers to produce. The 40-episode series starred the TFBoys, a Chinese boy band, as high school baseball players trying to turn around the fortunes of their team. MLB players made guest appearances. MLB says it had more than 5bn video ‘views’ and 3.1bn impressions on social media platform Weibo

(iii) Mexico
In a signal of the importance MLB is attaching to the market, Mexico City is the site of the league’s first major office in Latin America, opened last year. MLB teams have played many pre-season games in Mexico over the years, and next year will play their first regular season games there.

Assets and activities:

  • Office in Mexico City, opened in 2016
  • Games and events:
    • Regular season games – in May 2018, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres will play a three-game series in Monterrey, over the Cinco de Mayo holiday period
    • Spring training (pre-season) games – MLB teams regularly play spring training games in Mexico. The most recent were in 2016 when the San Diego Padres and the Houston Astros played a game each in Mexico City
    • World Baseball Classic – Mexican city Zapopan hosted seven games in the first round of the 2017 edition of the national team tournament. The WBC is the top national team competition – the ‘World Cup’ of baseball. It is sanctioned by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, but MLB has been instrumental in its launch, promotion and organisation

(iv) London and Western Europe
Park describes the strategy run out of its London office as the MLB’s ‘most idiosyncratic’. The league needs a presence in the large and wealthy region, but local interest in the sport isn’t as strong as in the Latin American and Asian markets already discussed. 

“On the one hand, we are a fairly low-profile sports brand, on the other, we have a compelling lifestyle brand throughout Europe, that is a representation of American urban culture,” Park says.

MLB event activity in Europe will ramp up in the next few years, with regular-season games planned for London in 2019 and 2020 – the first to be played in Europe. These will be the league’s first regular season games in Europe. Until now, event activity has been low-key. The biggest event in London in 2017 was a promotion during the British Summer Time music festival in Hyde Park that had MLB players competing against each other in an on-stage competition in which they hit balls at targets in the crowd.

Assets and activities:

  • Office in London, opened in 2015, covering EMEA
  • 2017 promotion ‘MLB Battlegrounds’ in London’s Hyde Park, as part of British Summer Time, a major music festival in the city. The event was seen by about 20,000 people
  • Regular season games coming to London in 2019 and 2020

For the 2016 season, MLB had agreements with 115 television and radio partners to broadcast regular-season games, the All-Star Game and the post-season (including the World Series). Coverage was in 14 languages, and 170 countries.

Conclusion

MLB talks an ambitious game and backs this up with considerable resources and sophisticated thought going into nurturing its overseas fan communities.

Its approach is highly targeted, zeroing in on a small number of communities which it considers most fruitful. The most important markets get boots on the ground with their own offices. Arguably the most remarkable of the league’s plans is unfolding in China, where it is aggressively pursuing the production of a local star.

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