MLB begins “long-term journey” in Europe with London games

Former New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez has been a key figure in Major League Baseball's most storied rivalry, and will help announce the second of two upcoming MLB games in London as a member of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball crew.

The concept of a British Invasion is well established in American pop culture, beginning with The Beatles’ arrival stateside more than 55 years ago and since applied in numerous other contexts.

Major League Baseball’s upcoming pair of games in London, marking the league’s first-ever contests in Europe, will essentially attempt a similar notion in reverse, with the league hoping for some version of a baseball Beatlemania by bringing its biggest rivalry to the United Kingdom. 

The league playing regular-season games outside its established team locales in the continental US and Canada is nothing new, with contests staged in sites such as Mexico, Japan, Puerto Rico, and Australia dating back to 1996. But unlike many of those visits to established baseball hotbeds, the June 29-30 games at Olympic Stadium involving the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox at once present an active level of involvement by MLB sponsors and media partners and the league’s biggest push yet into a long-problematic area on its international map.

“For so long, these games have been theoretical, but now it’s finally becoming real,” said Charlie Hill, managing director of MLB Europe. “But the long-term thinking here is what’s key here. Having these games is great, but that in and of itself it doesn’t create a business. We really need to think of these games as a European-wide proposition and merely the beginning of something much bigger here.”

Building that European business, however, will be far easier said than done. Though MLB has long shown live games in the UK and elsewhere in Europe through broadcasters such as BT Sport and Fox Sports Europe, there is not a prominent pro baseball league on the continent to mirror Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball or Mexico’s Liga Mexicana de Beisbol. Europe is also not currently a fertile source of MLB talent, and baseball is not the most popular sport among fans in most parts of the continent. 

Rather, MLB will be seeking to export its product to a soccer-mad part of the world just before the July 1 start of the 2019 Wimbledon Championships.

“We ultimately want to be considered part of the established sporting calendar here at this time of year, along with Wimbledon, the Champions League and so on. Getting that kind of foothold is a big goal for us,” Hill said. 

Current Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., on a prior MLB ambassador trip to London, will be part of the upcoming games at London Stadium

Games long envisioned

It was against this uphill climb that MLB’s European games were first envisioned nearly a decade ago, years before then-MLB Commissioner Bud Selig was succeeded by Rob Manfred in early 2015. On the field, the Yankees and Red Sox are baseball’s most-storied rivalry, intra-division combatants that have played more than 2,200 games over the past century, battled several times for or in the postseason, and in 1920 were involved in perhaps the sport’s most famous player transfer ever with the Red Sox sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, creating for Boston what was known during a subsequent 86-year championship drought as “The Curse of the Bambino.”

Off the field, though, the current owners and executives of the Yankees and Red Sox are friendly with each other, are often brainstorming on new business initiatives that could be mutually beneficial, and serve together on various MLB business committees. 

Red Sox president and chief executive Sam Kennedy describes a steady conversation over the last several years about playing in London that also involved his team’s principal owner, John Henry, along with Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner and president Randy Levine. 

That ongoing discussion was further amplified by the soccer interests each team has, with the Red Sox being a sister holding to Liverpool of the English Premier League through Fenway Sports Group, and the Yankees being a partner in Major League Soccer’s New York City FC with City Football Group, the parent of reigning EPL champions Manchester City.

“These games are something that Randy and Hal and John and I have been talking about playing going all the way back to the Selig days,” Kennedy said. “Having this subplot of our competing soccer interests only heightened our interest in participating over there that much more. Give credit to Rob and [deputy commissioner] Tony Petitti for finally getting this done. We see this as an incredible showcase for our brand.”

Getting that deal done not only required a two-year commitment, with another set of games planned for the 2020 season, but starting with MLB’s premier rivalry. That marquee matchup contrasts sharply with the often sub-par pairings the NFL has staged for its London games in recent years. The Red Sox also agreed to give up two of its home games at Fenway Park to be the home team in London, though they will be compensated financially for those games by the league. 

“It’s been a constant dialogue among all of us,” Levine said. “For months, it’s at worst weekly conference calls, often more frequent than that. But it’s created a deep level of collaboration. And we started from a strong place because MLB made what I believe to be the right decision to put its best foot forward and enter a new market like this with its premier franchises and premier rivalries.”

In addition to his current ESPN announcer role, Alex Rodriguez is also an advisor to the the New York Yankees. He was nearly traded to the Boston Red Sox in 2004 before landing with the Yankees for the last 12 years of his playing career

Stadium work

The two London MLB games will be played at London Stadium, main venue for the 2012 Summer Olympics and current home to the EPL’s West Ham United. Like many special event games played both domestically and abroad, an MLB crew led by longtime field consultant Murray Cook has planned out a rapid, three-week conversion of the stadium to baseball, including the construction of dugouts, backstop, foul pole and the batter’s eye. 

The league also opted for the installation of a synthetic turf field for the games, with both the short lead time to construct the field and the ability to use the turf again next year driving that decision. Though several other MLB clubs play their home games on synthetic turf fields, the decision means the London games will be the first between the Yankees and Red Sox not played on natural grass.

“It’s a fabulous stadium, but it’s not built for baseball,” Hill said. “That’s required a lot of creativity, but the good news is that Murray and his team are deeply experienced in these sorts of field conversions.”

Tickets for the two games quickly sold out last fall, despite pricing that topped out at £385 (€436/$487) per ticket for premium seats, £320 for non-premium inventory, and some outfield corner seats going for £220, costs far higher than regular season MLB games in most US markets. Low-end general admission tickets started at £30, and season ticket holders for the Red Sox and Yankees were given a presale opportunity in November to buy seats. 

The quick sell-through prompted MLB to seek, and ultimately receive, permission from local officials to boost capacity for each of the games from 57,000 to slightly more than 60,000. The two games have also stood as the most popular games on the entire league schedule for StubHub, MLB’s official ticket resale partner.

“The level of demand we’re seeing is directly representative of the historic nature of this event and the appeal of the two teams involved,” Hill said.

Boston Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. (center) visited London last offseason to help promote the upcoming MLB games in London

Support events

MLB will supplement the two London Stadium games with a series of fan engagement and youth development events around the city aimed at expanding the reach of the event beyond the 120,000 total ticket holders. A three-day baseball festival called London Yards will be held at East London’s Truman Brewery featuring music, virtual reality stations, cuisine from New York and Boston, and live screenings of the two games. 

The league will also stage near London Stadium a local version of Play Ball Park that will serve as a center of youth-focused baseball and softball activity with a temporary diamond, batting cages, and pitching tunnels. Part of the league’s broader Play Ball youth participation push, MLB will also stage both a Little League tournament and a larger elite development tournament for top teenage players. 

The efforts carry two primary goals: allow anyone who is interested in the event and in London that weekend to be part of it in some fashion, and help develop a wave of European player talent that could ultimately funnel its way to the big leagues.

“There is playing talent in Europe, and we want to support it as much we can,” Hill said. “You look at what happened with the NBA in the continent once [German-born] Dirk Nowitzki came to the league and thrived. Ultimately, we want Europe to be more entrenched in our sport. That happens in multiple ways, and supporting the development of players across multiple age groups is certainly an important part of it.”

Though the London games will essentially be standard, midseason regular-season contests, they are being operated, sold and managed by the league in a manner similar to the postseason. MLB is managing all sponsorship sales for the event, with a presenting deal sold to existing business technology and communications partner Mitel and other agreements said to be in the works. 

Fox and ESPN, the league’s two national broadcast partners in the US, will each get a piece of this for domestic broadcast, with Fox showing the first game and ESPN the second, and both networks using their lead broadcast talent teams.

Before the 2019 London games happen, the league is already deep in planning for the 2020 event, with another prominent baseball rivalry, the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, strongly rumored to be the participants. A formal announcement of those games is expected before the end of June.

“This is a long-term journey for us in this part of the world, and it has to start somewhere,” Hill said. “But ultimately what we’d like is for something like this to be a regular part of our calendar each season. We want a portfolio of live game opportunities.”

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