Yesterday I was lucky enough to get tickets to the second game of the 2014 Major League Baseball season opening being held here in Sydney and I must say it was a great day out.
When I first heard the MLB would be coming here I was very excited, until I saw the ticket prices for decent seats and decided I wouldn’t be attending. I only went on short notice due to being given last minute free tickets in some of the best seats in the house and I am now really glad I did.
The job the MLB and SCG did to turn the stadium into a baseball field was amazing. It looked like it had been a baseball stadium forever and it looked great both on TV and in person. It will be interesting to now see it converted into a rugby league field for the NRL match there next week.
Overall I would say the experiment of bringing the MLB season opener to Sydney was a major success. This was a risky move for the MLB as the other countries they have gone to are all countries where baseball is much bigger than it is here. Places like Japan and Taiwan, where it is one of the biggest sports they have.
The crowd numbers, public interest and merchandise sales would have made the MLB very excited about the prospects of the Australian market, both in terms of following the MLB as a whole, returning to Australia for future events and the development of the Australia Baseball League, which the MLB half own.
Baseball is a sport with growth potential in Australia and this event may have helped give it a shot in the arm to get people taking an interest in the ABL. Whilst I don’t think it will ever grow to be one of the major sports in Australia and doesn’t have quite the potential the A-League has, I definitely think it can grow its fan base, with more and more people watching American sports on TV and online and learning about games that traditionally have not been played here.
Australian interest in baseball could have possible positive and negative effects for cricket in Australia. From a positive standpoint, there is the potential to share information and training techniques and skills across the two sports. American fielding coaches have already been used in cricket for years, but there are all sorts of advancements and resources available in baseball in the US that cricket may be able to harness.
Baseball has also been used to develop the skills of cricket players and many of our great cricketers used to play baseball in the off season, such as Ian Chappell, who was used in the commentary team for the Diamondbacks vs Dodgers matches.
From a negative standpoint, could it be possible that some fans get swayed from interest in cricket to an interest is baseball? People can and will be fans of both sports, but it’s entirely conceivable that some fans might find themselves spending their ticket money on going to an ABL game as opposed to say a Big Bash Twenty20. That is of course if the ABL is able to use this spark to ignite a flame of interest in the public,
The other potential issue for cricket is that baseball can offer salaries, even at the lower end, that blow cricket out of the water. The natural talent to succeed in each sport are obviously quite similar and if baseball grows in Australia, some of the talented kids who historically would play cricket may find themselves leaning towards trying to make a go of it in baseball. You have the ability to get a free education in an American college as well as the potential to earn amazing money if you are good enough to make the majors.
Many sports already compete for talented youngsters. The two rugby codes are the most obvious example, but even sports like AFL and basketball often compete for taller athletes and baseball has upside that cricket simply can’t offer.
However, before we get to that point, it is now on the ABL (and the MLB to an extent) to grow the league and interest in the game. The NBL in the 90s had the chance to grow and cement itself as a major sport on the Australian scene, but were unable to get past the ‘fad’ stage and fell back into being a niche sport.
With the ease of access to watching the games in America, it can be hard for a lesser league to attract people to attend simply based on geography. Marketing is crucial now, especially at a grass roots level. Baseball needs to get into schools and get kids interested in playing and watching the sport or else the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will simply be a memory of a cool event that we had once.
The other thing the ABL needs to do is quite simply get better. I’m not saying it’s a terrible league or anything, but they need to find a way to convince fans, especially educated ones who follow the MLB, that the ABL is worthy of their interest.
In my opinion they need to develop relationships with MLB teams, where perhaps a few players from the minor league system are sent here to develop. Now we may not get the best prospects who are expected to make the major league roster that season and of course each team already has a very strong farm system, but with the MLB owning half the league and the possibility for brand development in Australia, clubs may take an interest in partnering up with an ABL team.
The other option is to bring over players who don’t get an MLB contract that year. The types of player who ends up going to Japan to either revive their career, make some money before they retire or maybe even create a whole new career and life in a new country.
This option is much more in line with the A-League marquee player system and definitely something that would improve the quality of the ABL and get fans interested.
The time for baseball to establish itself in Australia is right now and if they don’t do it now, it likely will be an opportunity gone.