Globalizing Major League Baseball
Posted by Alan Klein, author of the newly published GROWING THE GAME: The Globalization of Major League Baseball.
For Major League Baseball (MLB), globalization is an important way of staving off a serious decline at its core. Despite having set records in attendance and revenue figures, as well as posting healthy television ratings, the sport is unable to domestically reproduce both its player or fan bases. Hence, going abroad is a rational response to a deteriorating situation. How MLB is going about it, is a study in contrasts: at times playing the role of the 600 lb. gorilla, and then the soft-spoken ambassador.
MLB finds itself faced with two very different challenges. It seeks to further develop the game where it is entrenched, as well as in countries where baseball is virtually unknown. The lion’s share of this effort has come from the Baseball Commissioner’s Office, in particular from Major League Baseball International (MLBI). First and foremost, MLBI is responsible to the owners and, hence, must generate profit. This is done by selling broadcast rights, licensed products, event production and securing corporate sponsorships abroad.
Completely staffed by marketers, MLBI is convinced that success is defined by and attained through marketing -a position which is patently wrong on at least two fronts. First, it assumes that baseball is culturally neutral -as are the areas it enters. Even in areas where the sport is strong (e.g. Japan and the Dominican Republic), increasing market share is a tricky road strewn with cultural obstacles that can de-rail any marketing campaign. Secondly, ‘growing the game’ in areas where baseball is barely known is better understood as social engineering, not marketing. MLBI is woefully ill equipped for that role. Exposing children to baseball (either in schools and/or through the media as MLBI has sought to do), will not, in and of itself, lead easily to a baseball-playing generation. MLBI has to contend with existing sporting traditions built upon powerful local relationships, attitudes toward American culture, and ideas about what is meaningful in sport. This is certainly at work in MLBI’s poor showing in Europe and Africa.
Globalization exists along a continuum with one end rooted in a ‘Cold War’ mindset and a conventional economic world view; while the other is situated precariously in a fast-paced world in which there are only the quick and the dead. The former is what I’ve termed ‘testicular globalization’, while effortlessly continues to centralize power among the industrial giants, while the latter can -at times- reward nations and enterprises for their ability to respond quickly to market forces (e.g. parts of India, Ireland, China). Certainly no panacea, this is what I call ‘tough love globalization’ for its ability to allow a modicum of leveling of playing fields.
MLB has thus far elected to follow the testicular route. The recent World Baseball Classic was an excellent example. While MLBI could have brought other nations into the decision-making fold, they opted instead to run it out of their hip packet. The message was not lost on participating nations, several of whom threatened to boycott the even almost to the opening round. MLB may have carried off their first effort at imitating the World Cup, but it bore no resemblance to FIFA’s soccer extravaganza.