Opening up the new frontiers

The foray into Australia by Major League Baseball not only felt and looked fresh, it was necessary to boost growth in the code

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 March, 2014, 9:39pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 March, 2014, 9:39pm

Starting the new Major League Baseball season on one of the world's most hallowed cricket grounds makes perfect sense in some ways. There are no two major sports that are so closely aligned. The key to winning in baseball is pitching, hitting and catching. It is the exact same formula for success in cricket. Partisans of both games can often be quick to dismiss the other, but a large part of that is insecurity. Neither game comes close to approaching soccer or even basketball in global appeal and both are eager to take their game to new frontiers, which is why the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks kicked off this year's MLB regular season at the Sydney Cricket Ground a full week before any other teams start to play.

The two-game series, which the Dodgers swept, attracted close to 80,000 fans to the historical grounds that were retrofitted for the first regular season games held in Australia. It really was a stunning vista with the Victorian architecture stands dating back to the mid-1800s framing a baseball diamond. The venue was selected to officially commemorate the 100th anniversary of the New York Giants and Chicago White Sox playing at the ground. But for some, Sydney was selected on the basis of far simpler criteria: money.

The notion of holding opening day outside of the US is still considered heresy for the game's historians and no sport in America clings to its history like baseball. It used to be that opening day of the baseball season was a de facto national holiday in the US. Of course, that was back when baseball was the American pastime. The NFL has long been head and shoulders above baseball in popularity in the US and while that league tries to spread its wings internationally - last year there were NFL regular season games in both London and Canada - it really does not have to. Revenue for the NFL, which was just a bit over US$9 billion last year, has routinely outstripped what MLB garners. Sure the league makes money playing games in London, but it is barely a blip on the radar.

Baseball has a rich history in Asia. But it is basically contained in select pockets of the continent, most notably Japan, South Korea and Taiwan

Baseball, on the other hand, has to pay a slew of gargantuan salaries, so conventional thinking is they desperately need to sell merchandise in places like Australia and Japan. Of course, conventional thinking is just that: conventional. Last year, baseball revenue was over US$8 billion, a staggering growth brought on by a massive influx of new television deals.

So it is actually possible that when MLB said it wanted to grow the game internationally by holding opening day in Sydney this year, it actually meant it. And believe me, I am sceptical over trusting anything that MLB does, particularly under the auspices of antiquated commissioner Bud Selig. He has overseen and overlooked the destruction of the game's record books through the rampant and unchecked use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs because it made the game wildly popular with a younger, emerging demographic.

He then proceeded to deny any knowledge of it while pursuing and blackballing the very same buffed-up stars that put the game front-row centre. Cynicism and mistrust of the powers that be in baseball, brought on over the years for everything from systemic racism to blatant abuse of labour laws, is as old as the game itself.

This foray in Australia, though, not only felt and looked fresh, it was necessary for baseball. It may seem like a natural fit in a cricket crazy country like Australia, but baseball lags well behind both the NBA and NFL on the local radar.

Australia is second only to the US in paid subscriptions to the NBA's online broadcast package. Despite having 28 Australians who have played in the US major leagues, players like Dodgers' star pitcher Clayton Kershaw are virtually unknown in the country.

Of course, one Australian newspaper did point out that Kershaw will make US$30 million annually when his new contract kicks in, far more than any cricketer will ever earn and an amount that MLB hopes will inspire the best young athletes in the country to give baseball a second look.

Personally, I am all for taking the game that I love to new frontiers, particularly as I live in one of those new frontiers. Baseball has a rich history in Asia. But it is basically contained in select pockets of the continent, most notably Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

If we can somehow spin an Australasia axis on the sport, then opening day at a spectacular venue Down Under cannot help but grease the growth.