MLB hopes Yankees-Red Sox will spark UK baseball craze

Major League Baseball is bringing its marquee rivalry to London in 2019. But will that be enough to win over cricket-obsessed Brits?

The league has announced plans for the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to play two games next June at London’s Olympic Stadium, the home of soccer club West Ham.

Last month’s announcement, which follows years of rumblings over the arrival of baseball in London, has been cheered by the sport’s small but devoted following in the United Kingdom.

“It’s massive, absolutely massive for the baseball community,” said Johnny Gould, a former baseball TV commentator in the United Kingdom.

But speculation has quickly turned to what comes next: Will the rare overseas series become an annual tradition? And will it help baseball to catch on in Europe?

In coming to London, baseball is following a familiar script for American sports.

The National Football League arrived in London in 2007, and 19 games have been played in the city since then. The National Basketball Association has been hosting games in London since 2011.

Chris Park, an executive vice president at Major League Baseball, said that the league has been making “aggressive” international investments over the past three years.

“London is fast becoming a pivotal staging ground for some of MLB’s most compelling explorations of the future of baseball,” he said. Last year, MLB hosted a home run derby in London on the 4th of July that featured baseball stars and international English cricketers.

MLB staged its first international game in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1996. But trips to big foreign media markets are rare: The Dodgers and Diamondbacks played in Sydney, Australia, in 2014, and a handful of games have been played in Tokyo, Japan, since 2000.

Of the games in London, Park said: “We are seeing great interest from media partners and potential media partners locally and around the world.”

Still, baseball is playing catchup to its American rivals with British fans.

NFL games have been broadcast in the United Kingdom since 1982 and a total of 4 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl on the BBC and Sky Sports earlier this year. The NBA can draw its fans from the more than 300,000 Brits who play basketball at least once a month.

Baseball, meanwhile, has lagged in public awareness.

America’s national pastime has been off the air in the United Kingdom since Channel 5 stopped broadcasting games in 2008.

Gould, the television commentator, said he was “truly gutted” when baseball broadcasts were canned.

“That still sticks in my throat to this day,” he said.

The potential for baseball in Europe was dealt another blow when the sport was voted out of the 2012 Olympics in London. Still, the Yankees vs. Red Sox games may yet sell out the 55,000-seat London venue.

David Forrest, a sports economist, said that many Brits will be “applying for tickets out of curiosity to see the strange ritual of baseball live at the London stadium.”

“It’s about taking a parochial sport, and trying to give it a world flavor,” said Gould.