Crikey, that’s an early hour! And I can assure you, it isn’t a typo. The MLB is kicking off its 2014 campaign with a two-game series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks waaaaay across the pond in Sydney, Australia.
The games, which will be played at the Sydney Cricket Ground, will be televised live here in the states tomorrow at 4:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m. on the MLB Network (they’re actually scheduled as a night game followed by a day game on Sydney time).
You might be thinking to yourself “Four o’clock in the morning?! There’s no way anybody is waking up that early for a regular season baseball game!” For the most part, I think you’re probably right.
Don’t expect this two-game set, which the MLB’s marketing people have dubbed the “Opening Series”, to fetch much in the form U.S. viewership. But that’s okay. This Down Under opener wasn’t set up for TV ratings. It wasn’t set up for the American fan, at all. This year’s Opening Series is about something much bigger: the health, growth and expansion of the game as a whole.
This isn’t the first time baseball has begun its season in a foreign territory. In 1999 the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres played the season opener in Monterrey, Mexico. In 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 the season began with games in Japan. In 2001, baseball kicked things off by playing in Puerto Rico.
For more than a decade now, Major League Baseball has made it a priority to try and globalize the game. And it feels that Australia is an essential part of its long-term efforts to grow the sport.
You’re probably questioning that; asking why Australia, of all places? Latin America and Japan are known lovers of the game of baseball. But when we think of Australia, we think more of cricket, rugby and Aussie rules football.
We fail to realize just how much the sport of baseball has grown already in Australia. Its little league participation is huge, trailing only that of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Australia won the silver medal in the 2004 Olympics. And we are beginning to see some notable Aussies break through in the Major Leagues (Grant Balfour, Dave Nilsson, Peter Moylan and Graeme Lloyd, to name a few).
Sending two Major League teams to play a couple of games in Australia is, at least in part, targeted at further cultivating that growth. What better way to continue to inspire the youth of Australia to take up baseball than to show them the game as played at the highest level by its best athletes? And for its efforts in promoting the game, the MLB opens itself up to a whole new country’s worth of future talent to further improve its own product.
It’s probably safe to say that the decision to open the year Down Under was also motivated in part by marketing. The MLB will get to showcase its brand to the baseball fans of Australia, which could increase their local demand for MLB broadcasts, MLB.tv subscriptions, and officially licensed MLB gear. We’ve seen the NBA take similar measures to grow its brand in places like Europe and China, with great successes. At a certain point, the American market becomes saturated, leaving little room and potential for true growth. There are endless additional markets across the globe. It only makes since for a multi-billion corporation like Major League Baseball to want to tap into that global potential.
None of these are negatives in my eyes.
I’ve slowly come to terms with the fact that baseball is no longer America’s favorite pastime, after reigning supreme for more than 100 years here. There is a lot that could be written about what contributes to that, which I’ll save for a future post. I think the moderate decline in baseball’s popularity here at home underscores an increased need to promote the game abroad. Perhaps baseball has the potential to overtake those sports in other countries that have to this point been firmly rooted as national favorites. If football can do it here, why can’t baseball do it elsewhere?
And I don’t think this is a sign that baseball is abandoning the youth of America. The league continues to push to improve the game’s footprint with the youth of America, particularly in the inner cities where real estate, facilities and equipment are typically sparse.
I’m excited to see what kind of turnout and what kind of reception our boys get over in Sydney. And if you consider yourself a fan of the game, you should be too.
So get your coffee ready. Four o’clock is only a handful of hours away.