MLB Sets Sights On New Markets In India, Europe

Image credit: (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

The upcoming London series between the Red Sox and Yankees represents a “lightning bolt” for Major League Baseball’s global strategy.

That’s how Jim Small, MLB senior vice president of international business, puts it.

“That’s a lightning bolt into our business,” said Small, who opened MLB’s Tokyo office in 2003 and helped launch the World Baseball Classic in 2006. “That creates so much attention, so much focus. It permeates the rest of our businesses, so we see an increase in our TV ratings, in our sponsorship sales, and our licensed-product sales whenever we do these games.”

Up until his recent promotion, Small had been based in Tokyo as MLB’s vice president of Asia-Pacific. For 16 years, he was on the front lines of MLB’s push to make inroads in countries in the Far East, where like Latin America, baseball already had a foothold.

More recently, he has helped spearhead MLB’s effort to grow the game in countries with less of a baseball tradition, such as China. MLB spent five years researching the market there, then decided to open an office in Beijing in 2008.

Since then, the strategy has centered around getting major league programming on TV, products into stores and school kids interested in the game. MLB has built three baseball academies around China and recently joined forces with a Chinese company to build nearly two dozen more.

The goal, as Small explains, is to develop both players and interest in the game. The thinking goes that if a player makes it to the major leagues, viewers from his home country will want to watch major league games on TV and buy MLB products. Small said there are already seven minor league players in the U.S. who graduated from their baseball academies in China.

Small said MLB is now eying a similar strategy in India.

“We can spend three or four years and learn the market, and at the end of that period decide if we think we can go with a more aggressive strategy to grow our business there,” Small said.

He pointed out two intriguing factors for India: the popularity of cricket and the market potential of a population of more than 1 billion people.

“There are very few sports played above the waist,” Small said. “And when we go and see the people that we’re supporting in baseball there, we see tremendous athletes who can throw and catch and hit. They may not have played a lot of baseball. They may have used the wrong foot to touch the base when they turn a double play, but they have the ability to throw a laser beam to first base. And that’s a really attractive thing.”

The market opportunity in the second most populous country in the world is undeniable too.

“In a country of 1.1 billion people, 90 percent have a connected device in their hands, either a smart phone or Internet-connected cell phone,” Small said. “And 89 percent of those people have been on social media in the last three days. When you talk about the ability to communicate rapidly with a lot of people, we think there’s a huge opportunity there.”

Like India, Europe represents another foray into a new frontier for Major League Baseball. With a series like the one in June, it just provides an avenue for more immediate results.

Both of these initiatives are changing the international landscape for MLB, which has expanded under the leadership of former commissioner Bud Selig and now current commissioner Rob Manfred.

For now, MLB’s international strategy, Small said, is two-fold. First, grow the game by attracting the best players to the major leagues from around the world. Then grow the business by televising games and selling their products around the world.

Working within that framework means MLB will hold only the occasional games on foreign soil. But as is indicated by this season’s schedule—featuring the opener in Tokyo, two regular season series in Monterrey, Mexico, and the London series in June—it’s a number that’s going to continuing to grow.

“What we feel is if we stick to our knitting and we focus on those short-term goals, the long-term goals will sort out themselves,” Small said. “. . . If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there. We absolutely have a very clear road to follow.”

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