MLB International’s Hill on London 2019 Baseball

HYDE PARK, London – Major League Baseball took an important first step in its oft-discussed ambition to expand its reach in Europe with the highly successful MLB Battlegrounds in London on July 4. As detailed in our article for Baseball America, the success of this event continues the momentum gained by the success of Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers last September, and the astonishing crowds at Hyde Park likely cement London as the first European location for regular season MLB games.

Charlie Hill was hired in December of 2015 to led MLB International’s London office and will be a key figure in the lead-up to hosting two major league clubs. Hill’s team pulled off a spectacular event that started a day earlier with the transformation of British Summer Time’s Great Oak Stage into a pair of batting cages with pop-up stages in front where batting practice hurlers tossed to the Home Run Derby participants. Directly in front of the stage, the expanse was measured into a field with distance-based targets, plus a fence over which players like Shawn Green, Carlos Peña, and Cliff Floyd, hit home runs.

Pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and an East vs. West Coast vibe turned the event into a smashing success while showcasing the fun and family-friendly environment that will be the main draw for baseball in Britain’s capital. The teams were nominally ‘Boston’ and ‘Los Angeles’, and played on Britons’ knowledge of these two cities. The event did not dwell on baseball’s complicated intricacies and, instead, introduced the fun of cheering on one’s favourite slugger and catching home runs.

Battlegrounds laid the ground for official games, which would not happen until summer 2019, but the occasion was a crucial and strategic milestone as the league tested British waters. With more than 20,000 in attendance, a truly Anglo-American setting, and enthusiastic former big leaguers, London will have turned away other contenders—Amsterdam, Paris, or Nettuno, Italy—as the best stage for baseball in Europe. This is exactly what MLB hoped, for the London market is most like the U.S. and it believes marketing would run into fewer cultural barriers, at least from the perspective of language.

We discussed MLB Battlegrounds with Hill and its role as the foundation for hosting an actual Red Sox or Dodgers club (though both are likely to be from the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic for travel reasons). Our chat also touched on the importance of GB Baseball and BaseballSoftballUK in the development of more formal MLB connexions with London. For those who prefer, our conversation is available in audio on our Soundcloud.

Gabriel Fidler: I’m here with Charlie Hill, MLB UK, at MLB Battlegrounds, moments before the Home Run Derby starts to crank up…
Charlie Hill: We gotta be careful, they’re going to peppering us any minute!
GF: We’re standing in the flight path of foul balls, maybe not home runs…
CH: And there’s a t-shirt cannon right now!
GF: Ah yes, we don’t want to be hit with that either! And around us is this great crowd of people who have come from all over Britain—I’ve got people tweeting me saying they’re coming from Liverpool, Manchester, and I’ve come from Durham with lots of Durham University players—but it’s really come together somewhat quickly towards the end.
CH: Yes, it did!

GF: Tell us about the organisation of it and the idea for it.
CH: Well, I think fundamentally what we’ve gotta be doing as an organisation is to ask ourselves some quite challenging questions about how do we put together experiences that are rooted in baseball as we know and love it, but start to make a connexion to audiences that are not accustomed to the sport. And so, there are a whole range of things we have to begin to do which allow us to essentially build a relationship with a new audience, and so we started thinking about where we want to be present, what kinds of formats of the game make sense, and I don’t even know where it began: “Let’s take over a music festival”, but somewhere along the line it made sense and it is amazing to be here, seeing it in front of us. I think it’s essentially a very public experiment. How do we begin to take the sport that we know and love—and look, we understand that the community want games, and we’re working on that, but we gotta do things in between to help build towards that, so that’s what this is all about.

GF: And how long has the planning been going on for this?
CH: It’s been a year, but in earnest the last three or four months. This has been a wild journey; really quick, and it’s amazing to be here.

GF: And, as far as I know, this is the first time MLB has used the ‘Battlegrounds’ phrase. Where did Battlegrounds come from and are there other Battlegrounds events coming up
CH: A couple of days ago we had a first of many—we hope—event at POP Brixton with this new VR experience [the launch of the London Battlegrounds, with virtual reality batting cages and simulations].  We’ve had an amazing time working with Harlequins Rugby Team and Middlesex at Lords which we called a ‘mini home run derby’ on their fields, and I think for us it’s a simple hook for us to begin to try a number of things that are a new way of experiencing the sport and the content of a live event that feel very simple. In this case, let’s take cricket and put it up against baseball, let’s take Cliff [Floyd] against Carlos [Peña], let’s take these matchups which are compelling and easy to understand.

GF: And what’s in the offing for Battlegrounds? Anything planned?
CH: I think we’ll need for about two months! Look, this is just the beginning. We’re literally just scratching the surface. There’s a whole host of folks here that are seeing something that’s really exciting. We’ll do more of this. We’ll be speaking a lot more about it soon, but for now we want to focus on getting this done as best we can, make a great experience for fans both new and old, and there will be a lot more to come soon.

GF: There is, of course, a long tradition of playing baseball [in the UK], mostly at quite a small level, but it’s grown in recent years, particularly as Liam Carroll has completely revolutionised the GB Baseball programme…
CH: He’s a great guy, we’re lucky to have him involved. He’s been absolutely wonderful, the team’s great, and we couldn’t be more grateful for their involvement.
GF: Can you talk more specifically about their involvement for this, and then going forward with getting GB Baseball and BSUK along with MLB in marketing and introducing baseball to London?
CH: Look, I think, at some point we can sit down and talk details, but I think ultimately what we need to do as a group is to spread the word, and that’s to get more people playing, more people watching, more people connecting to other fans. It needs to feel like a movement, and for that to work we need to work together and get everything involved, so we’re really lucky to have a great relationship with BSUK, with GB Baseball. This event proves it; we couldn’t do this alone. This is just the beginning, but I think it’s going to be really exciting working with them.

GF: It’s going to be quite an exciting event tonight as we have the Home Run Derby in just a few minutes. It’s pitted as Red Sox versus LA. Who’s your pick?
CH: [pauses to think hard] I think LA might steal the team win. The dark horse is Federico Celli, he was absolutely pinging it [during batting practice]. I think that Peña’s taking this pretty seriously, but who knows about these cricket guys? If they get ahold of some, it could be fun to watch.
GF: Earlier today, Taylor Hoaglund was sitting in for one of the players, and she was absolutely crushing balls, so there’s a few wild cards here.
CH: It’s going to be great fun!
[Hill’s prediction of Celli was prescient, as the young Italian slugger put on a dramatic finale to best Peña for the title.]
GF: We’re all going to enjoy it, thanks very much for speaking to us.
CH: My pleasure.

For more on MLB Battlegrounds, check out our article for Baseball America (link). We spoke with Carlos Peña (link), Shawn Green (link), Cliff Floyd, and GB Baseball’s Gary Davison and Will Lintern (link), and will be unveiling our conversations with them this week.

Advertisements

About Gabriel Fidler

Card Sharp is devoted to my chief indoor hobby-baseball (and occasionally football [that's soccer to you Americans], hockey, American football, and basketball) card collecting.
This entry was posted in Europe, Great Britain, MLB, MLB International and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to MLB International’s Hill on London 2019 Baseball

  1. Greg Brumley says:

    Gabriel,

    Nice report. Entertaining and informational, as is all your writing. (I keep saying that, but it is true. I wish you were able to get around to more European baseball games because I know I’d learn from your posts.)

    The MLB Battleground event seems ripe for analysis on two levels….

    FIRST, as theatre, it does seem MB did very, very well. By “theatre” I mean an entertaining platform on which to introduce the game. A stroke of genius getting it into BSF — what a venue! We should probably realize that thousands were exposed because they came to British Summer Fun, rather than specifically for baseball. But, so what? they were exposed. (I mention the BSF because, candidly, I find the claim 1.5 million Brits are baseball fans to be a huge stretch. Maybe — MAYBE — that many have seen a baseball game, but that doesn’t make them fans.)

    The format appears to have been a pared-down Fanfest event. Fanfest occurs throughout the week ending with the MLB All-Star Game and it is great fun for all who attend. So kudos to everyone who made Battleground a success, from the head honchos to the kids and coaches at the local teams who did the grunt work (and who really make such events work).

    SECOND, MLB operates on PR generalities which usually gloss over the reality of whatever they address. They probably feel that having a couple of ex-MLB players give speeches to the u-15 and u-18 national teams had meaningful impacts on the game in Britain. That’s the problem with MLB’s attitude toward its own minor leaguers, to say nothing of Europeans: sprinkle some pixie dust on the issue, rather than doing the years of daily work with whole teams (which is the only way to improve the game in a region or a country).

    Which brings me to the problem with playing an MLB game or two in London. The game, as far as I’ve ever seen or heard, is very poor in England. FAR behind the game on the continent. You mentioned that the performance of the Great Britain team in the WBC qualifier indicates the country is a coming power in the sport. Now, think a minute, Gabriel. The Great Britain team was primarily made up of American players wearing Union Jack uniforms. How well these Americans played had nothing to do with how the game has developed in Britain.

    I recall some years ago being at an Arizona spring training game. The British U18 team was there. British baseball had spent over $80,000 sending those kids there, along with two excellent North American coaches. Those kids had no interest in the game; they were about running around the park and trying to get any girl’s attention. When you tried to talk with them about baseball, they were pointedly uninterested. Having seen their lax schedules during their 10 days or so in Arizona, where they could have challenged themselves and learned a lot, they were a distinct disappointment. The English have a reputation for not putting in the work required to up their game.

    At the same time, the Dutch, Italians, Germans, etc. etc. have invested decades in developing their sport. Taking MLB teams to Europe for a game or two is a huge financial and logistical investment for those franchises. They would seem to recoup those costs better by playing before fans in Parma or Amsterdam, or even Regensberg, than in the fair — though undeveloped — fields of England.

    Consider the reverse experience of Premiere League TV vierwership in the US. Actually, a number of Americans watch it regularly. But that’s after a number of decades developing the game at the youth level, in colleges, and finally in the national league (which has become profitable here). Had they tried to offer Premiere League TV 4 decades ago, viewership would not have supported it for a month.

    Good for British baseball in putting on MLB Battleground — and in growing the local amateur sport to the level it is. But, candidly, it has much further to go than it seems to realize.

  2. Greg,
    Apologies for the delay in response, but thank you for both the kind words and thoughtful argument.

    I agree entirely with your conclusion of MLB Battlegrounds as ‘theatre’. That is a great way of putting it and, perhaps, I should have framed it more as such. You are absolutely correct about the All-Star Fanfest. I’m not sure why that didn’t occur to me, but it is very much the genesis for the idea.

    I also agree with your thoughts on the number of British baseball fans. I’d reckon it at around a third of the number they listed, including the large ex-pat US population.

    You are very right about MLB, hence the occasional dig in this article and others. In Britain and elsewhere, they often swoop in, have a big show, but then do not foster future growth, which is left to the overworked and underfunded locals.

    I’d actually disagree, in part, with your thoughts on the WBCQ roster, which was predominantly either British or Bahamian. You would, no doubt, respond by saying that Bahamians are only involved through the colonial legacy, but as British citizens, they are eligible. Should the Bahamas have its own team? Yes, absolutely. As to the impact it has on the game, you’re right in that the standard of play is much lower than what was shown in the WBCQ, but baseball really is making headlines and growing like it never has before. I am not surprised that before Coach Carroll took over, the U18 team you witnessed was lackadaisical and distracted. I’ve seen noticeable changes in the GB programme as his ideas have had time to promulgate, and I know several members extremely well, and they are some of the most passionate and hard-working players I know.

    I, too, think it is odd that MLB did not consider the Netherlands as a site. Italy would not work as it is currently going through some difficulties with infrastructure and funding, and Italian authorities have stopped pursuing it until more stability is achieved. Regensburg would be a sensible choice, but love for baseball is very much only in certain pockets there, whereas London is arguably (and don’t think I am unaware of other candidates) the most important city in Europe, and can draw fans from the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Czech Republic, and elsewhere to games. We’re fortunate that MLB has chosen us, and their reasoning is likely flawed (BST had 20,000 attendees, not diehard fans; team did well in WBCQ; momentum seems to be building), but baseball in England is on the rise.

  3. fred johnson says:

    I am sorry for such a late response.

    No, I don’t think the same argument holds for The Bahamas as it does for Curacao/Aruba. If Britain relies on Bahamians for international success to the extent the Netherlands does, I’m unaware of it. Secondly, Bahamian baseball is nowhere near as developed as Curacao/Aruba, is it?

    I am of the opinion that most of the players GB put on the field in the WBC qualifier were Americans or other non-Brits. This is not so? Certainly, we all remember the 2003 (?) fiasco when GB relied on US college players to place in the European championships and then couldn’t field a team for the next level.

    I must tell you that people who have managed your national team, who have coached in Britain and have led major clinics there still see British baseball as far behind Europe’s top leagues, let alone world competition. Does that mean British baseball has not progressed as much as you believe, or that is still has very very far to go?

    It is good to hear the U18 program has gotten serious. Without question, the future of every European federation rests on the development of its U18 players. Future viability literally rests on how quickly a federation will move the best U18 players into its top league. Clubs are oftentimes foolish about this. When I coached in the Czech Extraliga, I touched off an open rebellion among the 29-and-older players because I started a number of under-18 players. We won, but that wasn’t enough for the older players’ assumed right to play; and their club chairman not only gave into them but also stole money from me when we parted. Just an indication how clubs place short term goals ahead of their long-term prosperity.

    Your comment that London is a dominant European economy, and probably was chosen for an MLB game on that basis rather than the development of British baseball, makes lots of sense. MLB’s great sin against European baseball is the common twisted MLB value that marketing always trumps player development. The decision is no great tragedy, but it can’t help but send the message that MLB is far more committed to making a little more money than to rewarding the federations which have made far greater sacrifices to develop their game — and their fan base.

    As always……

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s