Feature

Build it and they will come? Major League Baseball’s game plan to win over the UK

As the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox prepare to contest the first London Series on 29-30 June, The Drum gets an inside look at Major League Baseball's plans to build its brand across the UK and Europe.

What Major League Baseball lacks in viewing figures overseas it makes up for in merchandise sales. The US sporting institution believes there are 5 million people in the UK who either regularly buy or intend to buy its products like jerseys and caps. Now, as it gears up to host regular season games in London for the first time, its objective is simple: to convert those consumers more interested in fashion than fastballs into fans.

Of its 5 million-strong base in the UK, 1.5 million of those people are highly interested in sports, aware of baseball and have a positive perception of it, but are not yet fully engaged. That’s the “conservative” estimate of MLB's UK managing director, Charlie Hill, and the reason he’s so confident there’s potential for the 116-year-old sports league to succeed there yet.

“If you wander around anywhere in London, you won’t go 10 metres without seeing somebody wearing a New York Yankees or LA Dodgers cap,” Hill tells The Drum.

“Our merchandise is a major sort of presence for us in Europe. It’s fine for some people to just want to buy our products purely as a fashion item. But if we look at a subsection of that audience, we know they are sports-interested. How do we begin to build a richer relationship with that audience? That’s the target.”

The campaign to do just that begins in earnest next week when the fabled Yankees and Boston Red Sox land in Britain to contest two competitive games at a dramatically reconfigured London Stadium. Bringing them to the UK is a complex business not only because there’s little baseball culture there to speak of, but also because there’s even less in the way of infrastructure. Hill doesn’t just have to build a brand strategy for the ‘London Series’, he first has to build a ballpark.

MLB’s team have been given 21 days to transform the former Olympic Stadium, now home to West Ham United, into a venue fit to host 60,000 ticket holders and the most storied rivalry in the sport. Since gaining entry the day after a Muse gig, they have laid 141,900 feet of artificial turf, pitched 18-metre-tall foul poles and erected 400 metres of fencing. Some 345 tonnes of American dirt has been shipped in to form the infield diamond. Work to build batting cages, dugouts and temporary clubhouses (football changing rooms aren’t big enough for baseball teams) goes on.

The aim is to replicate the US gameday experience as closely as possible, and that means getting all manner of “minutiae” right too. Take hawkers, for example. The vendors who patrol stands doling out sweets, hotdogs and beers are a staple of US ballparks, but they aren’t employed at London Stadium where football fans are forbidden from drinking in view of the pitch. They’ll be there next weekend, however, because MLB has trained 200 staff specially for the task.

“We’ve had to almost deconstruct the experience,” Hill says. “[Within MLB] you take for granted the music, the atmosphere, the food. If we don’t have that at our ballpark, it’s not baseball, because what goes on around the game is so integral to the experience we want to provide.”

This desire to hook casual UK fans on the all-American atmosphere is why experiential marketing – both inside and outside the stadium – is at the heart of MLB’s London brand-building drive. A fan festival, dubbed London Yards, will take over The Old Truman Brewery in the trendy East End during the weekend of the games. Designed by the experiential agency Imagination, it will encompass live music, New York and Boston-themed food stalls and a virtual reality batting cage where novices can attempt to hit home runs.

“We’ve learned through a couple of years of piloting different international initiatives this is the best way to open up our sport to new people,” says Hill, who expects at least 15,000 people to visit London Yards during the three days it’s open. The fan park will also serve as a “content factory”, with Hill banking on batting battles between sports stars and celebrities to create a cache of viral videos. He has reason to be optimistic. A similar stunt in 2017, which saw England cricketers Alex Hales and Jos Buttler challenge MLB all-stars Carlos Peña and Cliff Lloyd to a home run derby in Hyde Park, was streamed live by a million people on Twitter.

The real games themselves will be broadcast live on BT Sport – MLB’s exclusive TV partner in the UK – but also online by the BBC which has signed a streaming deal just for the occasion. Given that the current Cricket World Cup has come in for considerable criticism for having no live free-to-air coverage, and thus limited mainstream viewership on Sky Sports, the BBC arrangement looks a sensible move. Somewhat surprisingly, however, Hill says BT encouraged it.

“We had a good conversation with them early on in this process about the right way for us to approach these games. And they themselves were open with us about actually looking to bring in somebody like the BBC [as] a really smart way for the audience to grow, for us to open up our support to new people. Ultimately, everybody gains from that.”

Hill won’t reveal his viewership expectations for the London Series but says ratings will be less important than the behavioural data gathered from those that do tune in anyway. “It’ll be interesting not just what the flat number is, but where those people come from, which elements of the games they enjoy, how long they watch for. Rather than setting hard targets, we are capturing as much data as we can to try and educate ourselves on where we are currently and where we think we should be in 12 months’ time, two years and really build from there.”

At this stage, the ambition is not necessarily to convince a largely nonplussed public to suddenly become avid baseball viewers, Hill admits. “You can't, and you shouldn't, dictate to fans how they engage with your sport. If they want to engage by buying more merchandise, or they want to go to games in person or they want to share viral 30-second clips on Instagram or they want to go on a US road trip… all of the above are fine. Our job is to keep listening and keep looking for ways in which they intuitively find engagement with our sport and open up those opportunities.”

Baseball is arriving into an increasingly crowded UK sports market. Its US counterparts NFL and NBA have already successfully brought games to London, but they had a bigger fanbase there to begin with. To illustrate the scale of the challenge facing MLB, data supplied by the Ear to the Ground Agency shows that baseball has only 4,000 regular players in the UK. Basketball, by contrast, has 150,000 – just 10,000 shy of British sporting staples cricket and rugby union.

“With 8% of the UK adult population ‘interested’ in MLB, according to Nielsen – and this reflected in our Fan Intelligence Network surveys – there is a reasonable potential market to target,” says Ear to the Ground’s director of fan intelligence Owen Laverty.

But it will be a challenge to match the impact the NFL and NBA have made, he adds. “The NBA has done a fantastic job of building on the strong music foundations the sport already had in the UK by tapping further into entertainment and fashion circles and elevating its huge, out of this world idols, and the NFL has been built as a credible sport that people enjoy watching.”

Hill insists he doesn’t worry about competition and is keener to draw on MLB’s own expansion experiences in Mexico and Australia than take too many learnings from its American sporting peers. He’s also at pains to stress that the MLB is thinking more about growth as a “European project” rather than only setting its sights on the UK. London is its gateway to reaching a wide range of European audiences including those in the “major market” of Germany, where the MLB already produces a suite of German language programming in partnership with its country broadcaster Dazn.

“Everyone's trying to do this. You’ve got to recognise that when you're cultivating a new audience, it takes time and it takes persistence. What we can offer is fundamentally different. And it's not like we have to work at that if we stay true to what is it that baseball offers.”

Convincing the Yankees and Red Sox – two teams even those without an ounce of baseball knowledge could name – to bring their historic rivalry to London has helped the series’ marketability considerably. They were chosen because of their eagerness, Hill explains. “We survey the clubs and say openly, ‘here's where we're looking to play internationally, which is these projects is interesting to you? The response from the Yankees and Red Sox was extremely positive about London and they really wanted to do it.”

Before a ball has been pitched, MLB has already announced that it will be back again in London next year for a June series between another set of rivals – the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. Hill can’t say what the future holds beyond that, but he’s adamant that the MLB is in London to build something for the long term rather than stopping over for a cash grab.

“Come and ask us that question on 1 July, but there shouldn't be any question about our intent to continue to play games internationally and in Europe. As we go into further conversations with our players’ association about what the future deal looks like about playing internationally, absolutely the UK and Europe will be high on the priority list.”

Now it just needs to put itself on the priority list of sports fans who’ve got the T-shirt, but haven’t been there and done that yet.

The Boston Red Sox will play the New York Yankees in the first ever Mitel & MLB Present London Series 2019 on June 29-30 at London Stadium. Final tickets are still available here

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