MLB’s London Series presents a real opportunity to grow baseball overseas


The Chicago Cubs are taking their recent hot streak — 10 wins in their last 12 games — and bringing it back to a familiar old stomping ground.

London.

Fine, maybe it’s not quite so familiar. After all, the last time the Cubs played in the English capital was a mere 134 years ago, the team was still called the Chicago White Stockings and the trip involved a nerve-shredding boat trip in turbulent weather across the Channel from France.

Team owner Albert Spalding was determined to take baseball to the world and persuaded his players to set off on a global tour of impressive shipping logistics, spanning the United Kingdom and Europe, and far-flung locations such as Sri Lanka, Egypt and Australia.

Now, as MLB effectively tries to mimic Spalding’s prescient vision by transporting the game to less familiar parts, London and the Cubs will be reunited once more.

Over a two-game series this weekend, Chicago will take on the St. Louis Cardinals (Saturday’s game taking place at 1:10 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app) at London Stadium, which hosted the ceremonies for the 2012 Olympics before being repurposed as the home for English Premier League soccer team West Ham United.

Broadening your reach is almost compulsory business sense for enterprising sports leagues in the modern age, with the NFL having played regular-season games in London since 2007 and the NBA taking similar steps to international destinations.

MLB’s attempts had to be briefly put on pause and this is the resumption. Four years ago, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played a regular-season series at London Stadium and the idea met with enough initial success for a Cubs-Cardinals tilt to be booked for the following year, only for COVID-19 and all its disruptions to ice the idea — until now.

With the venue built for track and adapted for soccer, the field configurations needed some creative work, and the area reserved for foul territory is far smaller than in 2019, mostly to increase the home-run distance.

After all, the Yankees and Red Sox combined for a whopping 50 runs over those two games, though if we’re being honest, when bringing the sport to a new audience an abundance of slugging action is probably a good thing. For TV viewers, the series will also mark the debut of Derek Jeter as a member of the FOX MLB studio team.

[Thosar: How Derek Jeter is preparing for broadcast career, plus his thoughts on the Yankees]

Alex Rodriguez, David Ortiz and the ‘MLB on FOX’ crew get festive for MLB London Series

“I don’t take for granted that (this is) a special treat,” Cubs manager David Ross told MLB.com. “We get to go to a cool venue in London and have fun and play a rivalry game over there in front of fans who don’t get to experience baseball. That’s good for our game, that’s good for us, that’s good for our young guys, that’s a good experience.”

The sports media market is no less congested in the United Kingdom than it is here, which left MLB with a choice on how to market its offering. The best way, and the one it seems to have mostly followed, is to remain as authentic as possible.

American football has proven popular in the UK not because of supposed similarities between gridiron and rugby, but because it was pitched as its own unique thing. And partly because, not in spite of, the fact that the game is intrinsically American.

Just as so many Americans are avowed Anglophiles, enjoying everything from the Royal Family to Harry Styles to Premier League soccer and, yep, posh accents, so too do swarms of young and not-so-young Britons love the Kardashians (help), Beyonce, the NFL and Five Guys.

Baseball has avoided the trap of positioning itself as a replacement or alternative for the time-honored English pastime, cricket, and is being itself. While baseball is a small-time participation sport in Britain, with only around 60 clubs in the entire country, there is no reason why it can’t find some traction as an occasional viewing spectacle in London and deeper into Europe.

Old-school arguments about why certain nations haven’t adopted certain sports were long ago proven to be nonsense. Remember when you could constantly hear the aside that “Americans don’t like soccer?” How’d that work out?

When the NFL first went to London, more than one skeptic insisted Brits “wouldn’t ‘get’ American football.” More than 30 highly attended games later, this stands as another fallacy.

With baseball, one thing we can be sure of is that there won’t be talk of an expansion team across the pond any time soon, as the realities of a 162-game schedule would make so many trans-Atlantic flights an incurable headache.

More importantly, the thing to remember with such enterprises is that growth doesn’t all happen at once. It comes from showcasing the best of your product, and a storied Midwest rivalry is a meaningful way to do it. It is part of a process, as voiced by Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, for whom playing in London will be a memorable part of his final season before retirement.

“Growing the sport is the goal of this whole thing,” Wainwright said. “Hopefully I get to help with that, and we leave with a whole bunch of new fans.

Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.


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