Major League Baseball eyeing a new base in India
Having already captured the imagination, and significantly, the markets in the Far East, Major League Baseball (MLB) has set sail for a new course—India.
One of the oldest and most prestigious sports leagues in the world, MLB now wishes to make a footprint in South Asia, potentially one of the biggest sports market in the world given the size of the population, by opening its first international office in India (sixth in the world) on Tuesday.
The 30-team league will commence its innings with First Pitch, a programme that will introduce children to baseball in around 300 schools in New Delhi, Bengaluru and Mumbai. “There are so many similarities between baseball and cricket—the ability to throw, catch, hit—which will help kids gravitate to baseball quickly,” MLB senior vice-president, international, Jim Small said. “We don’t see it as competition to cricket at all. We know how popular cricket is here.”
The first priority of MLB will be to create demand for the sport in India by getting more children to play the sport and then develop infrastructure, for which they have already done a “fairly significant multi-million dollar investment”. “Doesn’t make sense to build baseball stadiums right now if nobody is going to use them,” said Small. “We will be on a year-to-year budget. We have funded the first three years.”
Small has come here straight from London which hosted the MLB London Series between Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees on June 29-30. These were the first MLB games to be played in Europe, which saw a total attendance of 1.2 lakh over two days at the London Stadium. MLB regularly hosts All-Star games in Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and China among other East Asian countries but baseball fans in India are unlikely to see any of their favourite batters and pitchers anytime soon here.
“We have to be patient. We need to make sure that we are focussing first on grassroots. That’s the key. There’s definitely a connection between playing baseball and consuming it. If you play the game you are more likely to understand it while watching it on TV,” said Small, adding that MLB is “here to stay” in India for the “long term”.
Small gave the example of China where MLB started investing in 2008; 11 years later, there are seven Chinese playing professional baseball under contract with Major League teams. “We now have a very strong TV and digital broadcast footprint in China, we are in every school in China, hundreds of stores selling our products. All that started with our investment. But earlier there was very little baseball in China and there wasn’t a cultural bat and ball sport like it is here,” said Small.
Significantly, baseball will also return as an Olympic sport at Tokyo 2020 after a gap of 12 years. The last time it was held at the Games, as Asian team, South Korea, secured gold at Beijing 2008. “There is a vote in 2021 or 2022 about the possible permanent inclusion (of baseball) in Los Angeles 2028. Last week I had a meeting with WBSC (World Baseball Softball Confederation) and we are going to work together on a plan to help baseball come back and stay (at the Olympics),” said Small.