In June of 2000, when MLB released its Blue Ribbon Panel on Baseball Economics, it recommended the following:
A special word about international development is also in order. Baseball, unlike football or basketball, is played throughout the Western Hemisphere and around the world at a very high level. More than 40 percent of the players under contract to Major and Minor League clubs were born outside the United States. Because baseball is played at a very high level in other countries, the opportunity for international events in baseball is tremendous. Moreover, because international revenues are currently funneled through MLB’s Central Fund, such revenues are equally shared by all clubs. Increases in revenues from international events should serve to moderate the level of revenue disparity in the industry.
Since that report, Commissioner Selig has pushed for more in-roads into international markets, albeit slowly. As it currently stands, international revenues only make up 2% of MLB’s total revenues. The introduction of the World Baseball Classic, and increases in Spanish Language sites on MLB.com show that MLB is serious about growing revenues and visibility internationally.
The question is, just how global can baseball become?
Albert Spalding had the idea right in 1888 when he toured around the world with two baseball teams in his attempts to promote the game. It was a novelty, and a self-promotion vehicle to some extent; as history has witnessed, the game never went as global as Spalding had hoped.
Jeff Passan, national baseball writer for Yahoo! Sports contacted me last week on this topic, and his article on baseball’s international efforts were published today. His article entitled Revenue stream of consciousness covers MLB’s vision and challenges. Within it, Passan interviews Paul Archey, who is Major League Baseball's vice president for international business operations. It is Archey who is charged with growing the game internationally, and he points to China where MLB is looking to host a regular season game before the 2008 Summer Olympics.
"There's nothing that excites a marketplace and energizes your business partners like having a game there," he said. "We know that if you play the game you're more likely to become a fan and more likely to watch television. We've seen in places we tried to grow it, when we get bats and balls in kids' hands, they may not become major leaguers, but they enjoy the game and want to play it."
The challenge is seeing if the game will truly grab the hearts and minds of China, or parts of Europe where MLB is looking to play games as well. It’s attempting to understand the long range aspects of MLB’s push that is not yet fully understood. As Passan’s article continues, I bring these points up.
In Europe and South Africa, where baseball has tried to catch on, the game remains a novelty, and the sport awaits its first Australian star. To believe baseball can infiltrate China – and not only do that, but steal market share from the well-established basketball – takes big, and perhaps excessive, hubris.
"I don't know how you make it work in total," said Maury Brown, who runs BizOfBaseball.com and is a writer for Baseball Prospectus. "Do you like NFL Europe? Shoot for a true World Series? There's been a dropping off in interest among America's youth, and instead of trying to get the country, we'll go international.
"It certainly has appeal in Central and South America and the Caribbean. Whether it has the appeal in Europe, China – it's a tough sell."
The larger point being made is that MLB can certainly grow internationally—clearly broadcasting via television and through MLBAM’s Internet reach will allow MLB to grow new revenues. But, as my comments in Passan’s article bear out, if it is MLB’s attempt to somehow have clubs planted internationally, it’s a tough sell.
My expectation is that MLB is looking initially in the former direction: grow MLB’s visibility through broadcasting via television, the Internet and other new smart technologies in an attempt to seed these markets that have not fully embraced baseball. Then, and only then, can we foresee a day when we can actually get to a true “World Series.”
Maury Brown is the founder of The Biz of Baseball and an author for Baseball Prospectus. He can be contacted here.