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.