Explaining the Structure of British Baseball

Following baseball in Great Britain can be a rather confusing endeavor, with a myriad of different organisations and leagues. This primer aims to make clear what the various entities are and how they correspond to each other. It avoids any discussion of the local politics to focus simply on the layout of the sport in the U.K.

British Baseball Organisations
Four organisations play broader roles in British baseball. They fit into several different categories and currently only two have any affiliation to each other. There are several other much smaller organisations in addition. The next section discusses Baseball Scotland and Baseball Ireland in Northern Ireland.

BaseballSoftballUK
One could easily be confused about which organisation actually administrates British baseball. BaseballSoftballUK, also founded in 2007, is the “development agency” for the sport, as well as slowpitch and fastpitch softball, which means its job—from a baseball perspective—is to grow the game at the grassroots level, increase participation, and development talent. It is funded by the British government through U.K. Sport.

It does not operate any adult or youth baseball leagues, but it does run BSUK Universities, which organises play in four-to-five leagues for the roughly two dozen university baseball clubs (slightly more in slowpitch softball). It also supports various tournaments, including the Battle for Britain Baseball Tournament every year in late May (also founded by Carter).

British Baseball Federation
As stated earlier, the BBF is the NGB for baseball in Britain and, as such, is responsible for the WBSC-sanctioned leagues and the national team, Great Britain Baseball. Its league structure is divided into four levels, with NBL at the top. The remaining tiers follow the structure of MLB’s minor leagues: Triple-A, Double-A, and Single-A. It also provides operational support for UK Little League, which is otherwise a separate organisation. The BBF is self-funded.

British Baseball League
The BBL is also known as the Northern League and was founded in 2017 as a result of all but one northern team leaving the BBF. Containing two of the three historic hotbeds of British baseball—Hull and Liverpool—the teams had competed in “northern conferences” for decades, including at the National Premier League level from 1992-2008. The following three seasons saw all northern teams at the Triple-A level, while Double-A was instituted in 2012. It maintained the same divisions from 2017.

Since the independence of its 12 clubs, the BBL has added six more teams and an additional tier, Single-A, which began play in 2018. Only two teams have been lost. One of those folded into another, while Nottingham, the only club south of Yorkshire, returned to the BBF and a Midlands league after 2018.

The league also helped launch at least two university teams, including two-time national champions Durham University. The BBL recently founded the British Baseball Council, which aims to support and unite all clubs, regardless of affiliation.

Women’s Baseball UK
The newest entrant to the scene, Women’s Baseball UK (WBUK) was founded in 2018 to get more women playing baseball and to support those that do. Its first two years included a women’s baseball championship and two women’s university all-star games, but the organisation took a major step forward last year. WBUK was ‘incorporated under the British Baseball Federation umbrella as the UK’s official representative for women’s baseball’[1]. Since then, a women’s national team has been announced and begun practicing, 10 teams have been founded, and tomorrow, the BBF WBUK League opens.

Independent Leagues
There are, however, more organisations than just these four (and their subsidiaries) and there have been very few seasons in the UK in which there was only one governing body. There are three additional unaffiliated regional leagues that are currently active, all founded in the last three years: the East of England Baseball League (EEBL), Westcountry Baseball League (WBL), and West Midlands Baseball League (WMBL).

A fourth unaffiliated circuit, the East Midlands Baseball League (EMBL), may have just been a one-year response to the COVID-19 pandemic, though it is possible it will return as a three-team circuit. There was also talk of a Southern Marucci Baseball League to enter in 2021 at an NBL or Triple-A equivalent level, though this did not come to fruition.

All three active leagues consider themselves Single-A and, beginning with the Northern League, one new circuit has appeared every year but one since 2017. The Westcountry League is 2021’s entrant and is the first to denote an affiliation to the BBL’s British Baseball Council specifically. There are 20 squads in the three active leagues, which when combined with the 16 BBL clubs make for three dozen indies.

The Organization of Baseball in Britain

For decades, the top level of play has been the National Baseball League (NBL), though it includes only teams from England. It is nominally mixed gender, but has traditionally been contested only by men, while women are more common at other levels. This circuit is run by the British Baseball Federation (BBF), the National Governing Body (NGB) for the sport, as recognised by the WBSC. Its English nature is not an organisational rule, but due to the local context in the three other countries of the U.K.

Wales
There were no teams in Wales between 1951-2016 (possibly even since 1939), when Swansea University Green Sox began play. The following year, Cardiff Merlins and Cardiff University Cubs were founded. The two university sides play in BSUK Universities, now part of British Universities and Colleges Sport (BUCS), the equivalent to the NCAA or NAIA in the U.S. Also worth noting is the amazing work of RBI Wales, which has worked with Welsh children since 2012.

An entirely separate sport, Welsh Baseball, has been played since the start of the 20th century, including an annual Wales-England match, which the former have dominated. Although the sport has lost 90 percent of its teams and players, it is still contested in South Wales.

Northern Ireland
Although it was a Kentish baseball legend that helped galvanize the sport in Northern Ireland (Jon Carter), Belfast clubs have always been more closely connected with Baseball Ireland. Although the Belfast club of the 1990s played games in England, the two current squads in Northern Ireland’s capital have always been part of the Irish circuit. The annual Ulster Baseball Tournament regularly features clubs from all levels of England and Scottish baseball.

Scotland
This brings us to the most northerly of the four constituent parts of the U.K. The first known game in Scotland was 1870, and there was a league in 1891, won by the first university side to exist in Britain, Edinburgh University. Little more is known until USAF presence between 1956-61 led to friendlies and then a league. Another period of silence greets the historian until 1986, when the current Edinburgh Diamond Devils (then Royals) formed, the Edinburgh Reivers commencing a year later and joining the BBF.

From 1989, Scottish clubs competed in various BBF leagues at different levels, with 1993 the only year in which teams north of Hadrian’s Wall competed in the National Premier League (now NBL). The two clubs that year both folded mid-season as the six-to-seven hundred mile round trips just to Nottingham must have been quite draining (and expensive). Given this, in 1994 the BBF created a Scotland Region that played at the equivalent of today’s Triple-A level through the 1998 season.

The Diamond Devils worked their way through a series of promotions (as with European football), playing in the Premier League North in 2000 and from 2002-06 while other clubs played in lower tier northern divisions. In 2007, the clubs reverted to a Scottish league, declaring independence and founding Baseball Scotland. Since then, Scottish adult teams—of which there are now eight—have played only in the Scottish National League, while two universities compete in BSUK Universities.

Scotland has a long history of competing as a national team as well, with the first game in 1934 a win over England. From at least 1990-2002, there was a yearly Scotland-England game, with England taking six-straight from 1990-95 before the Blue-and-White claimed four wins between 1996-2001 (with several results missing). Its national team is not recognised by the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) or WBSC.

Making Sense of the British Baseball Landscape
The shift in clubs has dwindled since the Northern League and the WMBL separated. For 2021, three BBF clubs became independent (joining the WMBL) and five joined the BBF (all from the SWBL, now a BBF league). Furthermore, several clubs have teams affiliated to both the BBF and an independent league.

Although seven new leagues in the past five years—counting the BBL’s three levels separately and ignoring the South West Baseball League (SWBL), independent from 2012-19—suggests serious splintering, this is not the interesting part of the story. While it is the case that 59 percent[2] of British clubs and exactly half of the non-university sides are not members of the NGB, it appears from the expansion of leagues and changes in teams that a different factor is, instead, causing a dramatic growth in the number of clubs, rather than a shift from the BBF to other leagues, though this certainly has happened.

This factor is what we might call the regional approach, which includes harder-to-measure factors like local club outreach, BSUK grassroots development, BSUK and BBL investment in university programmes, and the London Series. Take the Northern League, for example. In 2017, there was a single team in Sheffield. For 2021, six teams from the Steel City will take the field. Elsewhere, the London Mets and Herts organisations seem to be always expanding. And, university baseball has also exploded—and been a leader in women’s baseball—in the past six years. From 2011-13, there was an average of five teams at HEIs, but has averaged just under 24 in the past four seasons.

Most of this growth has come at the lower levels, which are aimed at beginners and casual players and reinforces the idea of regional growth regardless of affiliation. Bristol has recently added a fourth team to the club and Cambridge a third, both additions at the Single-A level, plus each will field a WBUK nine. New clubs also popped up over the winter in Harwich (Essex), Wellington (Somerset), and Croydon (London Legends).

This year, the BBF Double-A and Single-A South and South East divisions will feature six clubs fielding at least two teams: Bracknell, Brighton, Guildford (three), Richmond, South Coast, and Tonbridge (not counting Kent Buccaneers, which will field Triple-A and Single-A sides).

Where does this leave the casually interested fan, or even someone with a desire to grasp the full picture? In short, with a lot of options. You could pick a team name that appeals to you, and with the following options and some more traditional ones, there are plenty of choices: Birmingham Metalheads, Bristol Brunels, Cambridge Valkyries, Cardiff Merlins, Guildford Gold Cats, Lancashire Legends, London Minotaurs, Newcastle Nighthawks, Northampton Centurions, Sheffield Bladerunners, Wellington Khaki Sox.

You could follow baseball in a certain region, with all the leagues broken down by geography. Or, you can choose between one of three national teams to support. Either way, baseball started in the U.K.[3] and there is more baseball being played now than at any other time since World War II[4]. Stay up-to-date with our fortnightly summaries available at mister-baseball.com and be sure to follow us on Twitter, where we cover British baseball with regular frequency.

By: Gabriel Fidler. The author was employed by BaseballSoftballUK to assist with the London Series and GB Softball Olympic run in 2019. He has, at times, done work for GB Baseball and the BBL and co-founded Durham University’s national champion team, for whom he hit over .400.

[1] ‘About us,’ WBUK, wbuk.co.uk.
[2] 79 of 134 clubs; 54 percent (65 of 120 clubs) in England.
[3] The first recorded game of baseball was on 12 September 1749, in Ashley Park, Walton-on-Thames. HRH Frederick, the Prince of Wales, was a participant.
[4] More than a thousand hours going over historic documents and the hundreds of pages of archives we created have us feeling confident in this statement!

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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