Member Insights: How MLB is using digital to bring baseball to Europe
August 10, 2023
For this week’s Member Insight piece David Granger, Content Director at Cinch, speaks to the Managing Director of MLB Europe about getting baseball to the UK and trying to get fans to love it.
Getting major league baseball to the UK might seem an unenviable task, but for those lucky enough to go to the London Stadium over a scorching weekend in June, it is worth their efforts.
As well as three hours of top-level sporting action, for the non-fanatics there is a host of entertainment: nine innings is not the only show on offer. There are T-shirt cannons, an off-the-scale good live band, in-game fan contests, that Wurlitzer organ punctuating the action and – a stroke of genius – the very English mascots’ race. As well as the outsized hotdogs and beer in baseball bat-shaped glasses.
Heading up bringing baseball to this side of the Atlantic is the managing director of MLB Europe, Ben Ladkin. Previously part of the Arsenal media group, overseeing its digital and social platforms, he joined the MLB in 2019.
A lot of time and effort went into bringing the teams and giving West Ham’s home ground a make-over, so what is the intention for MLB Europe?
“We’re concentrating on building an audience over the next few years,” said Ben. “And then, of course, building a business. But you can’t have a business without the audience.
“These UK games are an incredible way of giving people the experience of watching baseball in a ballpark right in front of you on a summer’s evening.”
That experience is one which has is not only for European-based fanatics from the UK, France, Germany, Holland to get their once-a-year fix, but travelling US fans as well.
“We had good responses from Chicago and St. Louis fans who came. The Chicago Cubs hired a pub for the occasion and we had fans at our fan festival in Trafalgar Square. For them, seeing their team play in England, in a full London Stadium with a fantastic atmosphere is an amazing experience.”
One clever aspect is to take the best traditions of the US game and build unique London ones. Singing Sweet Caroline is a Red Sox tradition, but with the Neil Diamond song’s popularity in the UK, it works here. As did the mascot race which pitted Freddie Mercury, Winston Churchill, King Henry VIII, and a member of the King’s Guard racing around the field in the sweltering heat.
But has it all been fun and baseball games? Bringing a US sport over here is not without its hurdles. A baseball field doesn’t easily fit into a soccer stadium (it’s slightly bigger), so seats have to be moved and the logistics of finding time to get two teams over in the densely packed season was tricky. The teams played in the US on the Wednesday, flew Thursday, practised on Friday, played Saturday and Sunday, flew back that night to play again on the Tuesday.
Is there anything else that’s tailored to the British audience?
“You want to give an authentic experience. We want people watching the game as they would in a US ballparks – we don’t want to change that,” said Ben. “One of the barriers with baseball is the perception it’s a complex game, you can really get into the weeds of the stats and how it works.
“But actually, it’s a fairly simple game – you don’t want to dumb anything down for the audience, but we take opportunities to try to make it obvious what is going on for newcomers.”
One of the ways to do this is using digital and social as a way in. When Ben started in 2019, Covid put paid to the 2020 game, so the team used that unwanted chance to look again at its online output.
“We revisited our digital strategy, to build a fan base – and digital is key to that. Rather than liking baseball for one weekend, people can do it for the whole season.”
Getting the balance right between pleasing new fans without patronising the experts has been done through understanding the needs and knowledge of both audiences:
“We’ve worked hard on that digital piece. Firstly changing day-to-day content, to make sure we’re providing something that’s different from the US channels which do an amazing job of covering all the seasons and all of the team channels, but it is very in-depth.
“We create a slightly digested view which avid fans can appreciate, but, if you land on our channels, you won’t be overwhelmed by the 15 games played last night.”
Supplementing sport coverage is a variety of entertainment, influencers and online content from current cricket star Harry Brook hitting balls to chefs travelling to Chicago and St Louis to sample the fare and bring it back to cook at the UK games.
“We’re showing the sport is good fun, easy to get into as well as finding potential audiences,” said Ben. “In the traditional audience funnel, it’s at the very top – doing a whole load of activity which shows baseball as fun, entertaining and easy to enjoy. As people come down that funnel you make sure those next touch points don’t scare them off. You see an amazing catch, or you see the highlights and you can follow the sport easily.”
Interestingly the avid fans have been on hand, via social, to help newcomers understand – answering their questions and welcoming them. And that inclusive camaraderie/friendly rivalry was evident at the game in June.
But for MLB Europe, it’s not one big event each year, it’s building a legacy for the domestic game.
“We want to put in long-term roots for the sport. The UK redevelopment agency has worked closely with the US on First Pitch, a schools programme. We want to empower those people who are in the sport and are enthusiastic about it growing.
“The MLB games get everyone excited, but we want to make sure we are building this in the right way. As well as the digital content, which we’re really proud of, we work at a domestic level to bring the sport up and get people interested. Because the more people playing, the better.”
Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports