Will MLBs novelty Hyde Park pitch help get baseball up and running in Europe? | Nick Miller

MLB Battlegrounds is the first move towards bringing regular season games to Europe by 2019 but selling the sport is a trickier challenge than NFL and NBA

If you were at Hyde Park in London over the weekend, you could have gone to see Phil Collins or Justin Bieber. On Thursday the Kings of Leon are on. But on Tuesday, 4 July, you will find the first truly committed steps towards introducing baseball to the UK.

A two-year runup to regular season competitive games being played on this side of the Atlantic has already begun but the first major event in that cycle will take place from the Hyde Park stage. At MLB Battlegrounds the England cricketers Jos Buttler and Alex Hales, along with retired Major League Baseball players Carlos Pena, Shawn Green and Cliff Floyd, will take part in a home run derby: for the uninitiated, this means they will try to hit the ball as far as possible, as often as possible, against the clock.

Planning for regular season games in Europe, currently pencilled in for 2019, is still at a very early stage. No teams have yet committed, although plenty have shown an interest. A venue has still to be confirmed but the Olympic Stadium looks most likely.

But MLB UK has grander ambitions aside from simply promoting isolated novelty events. Baseball has flirted with this country before: exhibition tours took place at the end of the 1800s and early decades of the 1900s, and in 1993 some minor league teams played games at The Oval. Regular season MLB games have also taken place around the world, in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Japan and Australia.

But just as the NFL and NBA regularly bring competitive games to these shores, so MLB wants to gain a foothold in Europe, which leads to the obvious question: how do you introduce baseball, a sport which has little history or cultural relevance in the UK, to a sporting consciousness that already has plenty to occupy itself with?

The biggest problem in many respects is that were a sport with 150 years of tradition that has a really deep-rooted place in American culture, says Charlie Hill, managing director of MLB UK. It has a place and is understood and has all these rules and ways it behaves. The biggest challenge is making sure you dont assume you can take it as is, to assume it will be exactly the same as in America. The challenge is how to make that fit into the British sporting landscape.

The MLB Battlegrounds event involves players trying to hit the ball as far as possible as often as possible in a home run derby. Photograph: MLB BST

Battlegrounds is an early attempt to do that, to introduce a version of the sport to a new audience a soft introduction, perhaps. It is gimmicky and relies to some extent on the novelty of already famous cricketers playing an unfamiliar sport.

But more is going on too. A few months ago initial steps towards involving and cultivating UK-based fans were made, including a consultation group and working with bloggers and the podcast Batflips And Nerds, the idea being to help create more of a community. Then came various schemes such as a regular web show presented by the long-time baseball follower Colin Murray, social media campaigns run by a company called Engage, who have worked with Manchester City and the RFU, and a virtual reality game currently installed at Pop Brixton in south London. More is planned and at the moment things are at the experimental, lets see what sticks stage. Ultimately the idea is to build an audience gradually for not only 2019 but beyond.

Yet there are a number of obstacles to overcome, not least that baseball can be a sport of labyrinthine complexities, arcane conventions and unwritten rules. How to make sense of, for example, the idea that among players it is considered acceptable to throw a rock-hard baseball at 100mph deliberately at a players torso if he isdeemed to have celebrated excessively? Or the intricacies of baseball terminology: a balk, a bunt, an eephus? Or the often impenetrable stats used to assess a players performance?

The short answer to the question of how to explain all of this is: dont. Or at least not straightaway. When you sit someone down and try to educate people, its a very hard thing to do, says Hill. You learn a lot by just watching. We dont have to provide a rulebook for everybody. I think whats true to most sports, particularly baseball, is that they can be enjoyed in layers. Baseball probably has more layers than most and they can be idiosyncratic and wonderful. Initially well have an open mind about what layers are hooks and get people interested.

Marketing is another issue. A problem that baseball in America suffers from is a lack of cultural crossover stars – basically players everyone has heard of whether they re interested in sport or not. Most people know who Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James is but baseballs best players Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts are relatively anonymous in the wider public consciousness. This might be changing gradually but the ESPN reporter Buster Olney recently speculated that the most famous baseball player in America is David Ross, runner-up in the last series of the American version of Strictly Come Dancing.

Again, the quick answer to that problem is to ignore the lack of outstanding individual personalities and concentrate on what baseball does have. I think the stars of our sport are actually the teams, says Hill. I dont mean the squad of players but, if you take something like the New York Yankees logo, that transcends sport. Its iconic of not only baseball but the city of New York. You ask most people in any country who arent aware of baseball at all, theyll tell you, Thats New York. Or to put it another way, baseball already has brands that people recognise but do not necessarily associate with the sport. Making that connection should not be especially hard.

It is probably a better way of ensuring the sport has some longevity, too: individual stars are transient but the teams the biggest teams at least are not. Try to sell a slice of wholesome Americana, rather than one player. Sports like football have the problems of how to market themselves to families, says Hill. But were already a family sport.

The logistical problems of actually playing games thousands of miles away are worth considering, too. MLB teams play a minimum of 162 games a season and thus their schedules are packed. Days off are rare and so teams will be unable to follow the NFL route of spending a week in London, mugging for the TV cameras and getting acclimatised. Finding time in the calendar for a couple of transatlantic flights is tricky but not impossible. We dont see a problem with the travel, says Chris Park, of MLB in the US. We have already played games in Japan and Australia and the excitement of playing baseball in another part of the world is something most players look forward to.

The New York Yankees logo is synonymous with the city of New York and globally recognised. Photograph: Brad Penner/USA Today Sports

While American football and basketball have had a presence in the UK for quite a few years, there is almost no point in comparing notes: those sports, and the experience of watching them, are so different from baseball that there is little value in trying to copy what they have done. A more apposite comparison is probably Twenty20 cricket, which has similar rhythms, takes a similar amount of time and is also a sport with great traditions being introduced to a new audience. Twenty20 took plenty of its ideas from baseball, says Liam Carroll, head coach of the Great Britain baseball team. It just shows what an exciting sport this can be.

Another way in which baseball can help embed itself in this country is through greater participation. The plan is that watching games will help encourage people to play, not least because baseball players often do not look like typical athletes, and differ wildly. Two of the most exciting young players in the game are Jos Altuve, Houston Astros second baseman, and Aaron Judge, a New York Yankees outfielder: the latter is 6ft 7in and built like a back-row forward, the former 5ft 6in and might look more at home on a horse the if you see it, you can be it principle, applied to sport. A Major League game in London is the biggest thing we can hope for to expose our sport to more people, says Carroll, whose organisation is separate from MLB UK but has a very positive relationship with it.

The UK represents a blank slate for baseball and gives an opportunity to create something new. A whole sport can be packaged and sold in a completely different way, using its traditions but not being held back by them. Were trying to establish a deeper connection rather than just being a novelty, says Hill. As much as anything the next two years will be a fascinating experiment in how, given the right time and opportunity, what is essentially a brand new sport can be introduced to this country.

For more information on MLB Battlegrounds, click here. And if you are interested in playing baseball in the UK, visit BritishBaseball.org

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/jul/03/mlb-battlegrounds-hyde-park-baseball-europe-regular-season-games-2019