MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement Includes London Games

LONDON – Major League Baseball games are coming to London! Following the success of MLB Battlegrounds in Hyde Park on July 4, the release yesterday of MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement had big news for Britain and Europe. The CBA made official recent developments, as Attachment 51 stipulated that London will host at least one regular season game in both 2019 and 2020. The games will be the first between big league clubs in European history.

Also scoring big coups were Mexico and Asia, as the Agreement shifted 13 series over the next four seasons to various international sites, with six going to Mexico. Each series can be between one and three games, and the process of team selection will start no later than March 1 of the season prior to the ‘International Play Event’, as Article XXV, Section D labels them. The United Kingdom was the only first-time host guaranteed a series, though should Korea or Taiwan be tabbed for hosting, it would also be their initial contests.

Confirmed International Play Events
First up, though as yet unconfirmed, is Opening Day 2018, which will take place in Asia. Mexico will play host to two teams that April, while in May, another series will be played in either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic.

In 2019, four regular season series will be played around the globe, with Opening Day promised to Japan, while Mexico will claim sets in both April and May. June sees the first-ever MLB games ever hosted by a European site, pushing the number of continents to host big league games to four. The remainder, South America and Africa, will hope for further expansion in the next Agreement.

In the third year of international events, the schedule will mirror 2018, with the addition of the UK in June. The final year promises games only to Mexico in the same April and May slots; however, 2021 will also see the next World Baseball Classic contested, so the schedule is likely designed to give big leaguers a break as pool hosts will almost certainly include Japan and/or South Korea and, should they qualify, Mexico. It is worth pointing out that the calendar does not explicitly mention the Classic as a 2021 event.

Each year of the Agreement, spring training will include a series abroad, with Mexico earning two series in 2018 and one each in 2019 and 2020. Either Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic will claim a 2019 series, and the WBC will count for the 2021 campaign. After the 2017-2020 postseasons, a team of all-stars will play a barnstorming series in Asia or Mexico in 2017 and 2019 and in Japan in 2018 or 2020.

As for the teams, nothing is set with the exception of next April’s international play event, which will feature the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which has hosted MLB games on various occasions. That two-game set will take place in Hiram Bithorn Stadium, which has hosted 47 games, with 43 as the temporary home for the Montréal Expos. Attendance averaged almost 19,000, about 700 over capacity for the four non-Expos games, and only slightly less as a regular major league venue in 2003 and 2003. Puerto Rican fans, who along with their team, came close to stealing the show from 2017 World Champions USA, will surely pack out the stadium to capacity.

Of note is that the games scheduled for Asia can be in Japan, but cannot be in Australia, which played host to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks. Beyond that, few things are certain, but the CBA does offer some guidelines (all within Article XXV, Section D).

Spring Training
Mexico (2)
Mexico & PR/DR
Opening Day
Asia or Mexico
Asia or Mexico

International Play Event Selection Process
According to Section D(4a), “A Club may not be selected to participate in more than two International Play Events during the term of the Basic Agreement, no more than one of which will be outside of Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico.”

This means that whichever clubs open the 2018 season in Asia will not play in the UK in 2019 or 2020 and will not return to Asia for 2019 or 2020. It is possible, though, that the UK or Asian games may feature a club that has played in Latin America. One would have to think, though, that a team would not be asked to play in two international events in one year, though interestingly, that is not specified.

In regards to staging these series, “For each Spring Training or championship season Event in Mexico, Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, the Office of the Commissioner shall notify the Association in writing which Clubs have been selected to participate in the Event by no later than April 1 in the year preceding the Event” (D(1)).

There is more latitude for MLB’s more far-flung events, and involves both the Office of the Commissioner and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA). According to Section D(2), the process will start “As early as March 1 two years prior to the staging of any championship season Event in Asia or the United Kingdom, but no later than March 1 in the year preceding such an Event”.

For these games, the Commissioner sets the initial list of potential teams, tabbing at least four. The MLBPA then has thirty days to “survey the players on those clubs to determine their interest in participating”. The Association must then select at least two to present to the Commissioner, who will select the pairing.

Of note is a proviso, also in Section D(2), that ensures the decision is taken with only the players’ interests rather than the clubs’: “Club personnel shall be prohibited from lobbying or attempting to persuade or dissuade Players from participating in the Event.”

Players and the Events
Once teams are selected, all players “will be required to participate”, even if they have changed teams and already played their maximum of two series abroad. Host sites can look forward to hands-on interaction with major leaguers, as Section F outlines various promotional activities and will ensure at least two ‘International Ambassadors’ from each team. Moreover, players “shall be encouraged to promote the Event, including by participating in at least two large-group activities and one smaller-group promotional activity.”

In addition, at least four players from each team—with a minimum of two—will be dubbed ‘International Ambassadors’, the first time a MLB Ambassador has been an active player during the regular season. Traditionally, the Ambassador, an ill-defined position, has either been a retired major leaguer like Jim Kaat or Carlos Peña, both of whom we have spoken to recently (Kaat link, Peña link), or an active player during his offseason, like Mark Melancon, who spoke with us about his ambassadorial service here.

These ambassadors “will engage in one group activity or appearance to promote the Event”, which can be anything from guest appearances to sponsorship events, though may only be additional press conferences. For those that attended MLB Battlegrounds in London, which I heralded recently as a key step in MLB’s European plans in an article for Baseball America (link), ambassadors would likely hold a similar role to Carlos Peña and Cliff Floyd, who had a clinic with the Great Britain junior national teams and then met fans during batting practice, while making themselves available throughout the day.

After the news was announced, Great Britain Baseball Head Coach Liam Carroll tweeted, “Dear @MLB: your playing here in 2019 & ’20 will inspire children to play. Can’t wait. I hope we’ll see some new talent for @GB_Baseball!” Expect more feel-good quotes from tournament hosts as these events move forward.

In sum, it would appear that host nations will have the usual media access to players, but with the addition of at least four team members available for specialised activities with local fans, including at least one smaller event. This should make for positive press for local associations, whether it be Nippon Professional Baseball or BaseballSoftballUK. Do not worry, though, players will be recompensed.

International Play Events Finances
All players get a bonus for international events, which amounts to $15,000 for games in Latin America and $60,000 for series elsewhere. Teams get $40,000 and $100,000 respectively, to pay for travelling club personnel. Any player may also be requested to make a commercial appearance for the host, with a set fee of $5,000, with “voluntary commercial opportunities” also up for discussion, though vaguely defined.

Monies will come from a new joint ‘International Play Bank Account’ which is funded by revenue from international series, as outlined in Attachment 51, Sections 1 and 2. Initial investment comes from the International Tax Fund. Clubs will be reimbursed for lost revenue, including concessions, though Section D(5) does not stipulate if this also comes from the joint account.

What the International Play Plan Does and Does Not Include
Attachment 51, the ‘International Play Plan’, sets in stone what had hitherto been piecemeal announcements and press conference promises. Commissioner Rob Manfred has stated his desire on various occasions for games in Europe, lately specifying Europe, but this is the first time MLB has committed to his goal.

These events do not preclude other MLB international events. Charlie Hill, head of MLB’s London office, told me at MLB Battlegrounds, “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.” There is potential, therefore, that London could host a second edition of Battlegrounds next summer, and that other sites could see preliminary events, either with the ‘Battlegrounds’ logo or another theme.

The Plan does not set aside any information about stadia for the games. While the World Baseball Classic and other major international events have been held in various stadia in Japan, Korea, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, London and the Dominican Republic do not have purpose-built facilities. In fact, the only MLB-standard grounds in Europe are in the Netherlands and Germany. London’s Olympic Stadium has been tabbed by British pundits and some American journalists as the likely host site, but nothing is yet decided.

The Attachment also does not require MLB to make any sort of official connection with hosts’ baseball governing bodies or consult with them over promotional activities or advertising. MLB will obviously not swoop into a city and set up shop in advance of the games, but it may be that federations will benefit merely by association or that it will take outspoken enthusiastic delegates to work with MLB.

That approach was evident at Battlegrounds, where Coach Carroll’s inclusion added multiple dimensions to the event that would have not otherwise taken place. MLB’s Hill noted,

“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.”

As they say, the devil is in the details.

Finally, it is worth noting those countries that are not included at a level that might be expected. The first is Australia, which successfully hosted Opening Day in 2014 and drew almost 83,000 fans in two games. The Australian League has achieved some notoriety and stability in the last two offseasons as it has become a top destination for developing prospects, and has the [almost] purpose-built Sydney Cricket Grounds.

Second is the Dominican Republic, winners of the 2013 World Baseball Classic and responsible for 93 players on 2017 Opening Day rosters. Though they are listed as a potential host three times in the next four seasons, Puerto Rico has already been tabbed in 2018 and it is unlikely the Dominican would be granted the other two.

The Netherlands could also have hoped, despite recent momentum in the UK, to host a series, as they cooperated meticulously with MLB in building the nation’s state-of-the-art facility. It is also worth noting that Cuba, subject to embargo negotiations with the United States, and Venezuela, rife with political trouble and violence, were denied events. A final outside-the-box candidate could have been South Africa, as its level of infrastructure with cricket stadia is somewhere between Great Britain and Australia.

Much more news will be released as MLB makes decisions regarding sites for these international play events. An announcement as to the host of 2018 Opening Day will likely come in the next few months, and Mexico should know which teams it will host next April in the near future as well. We will have more as events unfold.

Bill Shaikin of the LA Times was the first to report the news. Hat tip to Kevin Senatore for pointing out its European ramifications.

About Gabriel Fidler

Extra Innings UK covers baseball around the world, focussing on the sport at the national team level, with features on prominent players, scouting reports, and occasional breaking news. We are fully credentialled by MLB and have covered the World Baseball Classic, continental championships, and the U.S. minor leagues.
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