Why baseball bosses believe the sport can thrive in London

Thursday 08 December 2022 5:06 pm

Major League Baseball (MLB) is returning to the capital with the London Series between the Cubs and the Cardinals

Once a fortnight during the football season, the Emirates Stadium fills up with 60,000 committed Arsenal fans cheering on the Gunners. Online, millions of supporters across the world tune in for highlights and videos – with more to shout about this year than most. 

One could imagine that Ben Ladkin, who spent 11 years masterminding content at the north London powerhouse, was happy with his lot. But he finds himself now with a new challenge – bringing baseball to a new British audience as managing director of MLB Europe. 

“What was really interesting about MLB was this challenge that we don’t automatically get the eyeballs. We have to work quite hard to get that attention,” he tells me. Signs of what he means are all around us – from a fairly nondescript staircase in an office building near Oxford Circus, we’ve emerged into a flashy MLB ‘locker room’, with jerseys, caps, memorabilia and even a games console. Part of what the brains behind baseball’s UK invasion are trying to do is make the link between some of the world’s biggest brands – who doesn’t know what a Yankees cap looks like? – and the sport that spawned them. To that end they invite influencers up to try on the merch themselves, spreading the message to their followers. 

“We have to do things a bit differently.” 

Ladkin has his hands full: in seven months, Major League Baseball will return to the capital for the first time since 2019, with two regular season games between Midwest rivals the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals. The series had been planned for 2020, a year after the Yankees and the Red Sox made the first trans-Atlantic leap. Ladkin’s pleased that – at least according to ticket sales – the momentum hasn’t dried up. 

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“It’s stored up demand. We saw real enthusiasm (when we announced the teams) and now we’ve got games confirmed for 2023, 2024 and then 2026, we’ll have that momentum” going forward. 

Baseball is a difficult sell in the UK – in a crowded sports market, Ladkin’s challenge is cutting through the noise. Ticket sales are going swimmingly, but the challenge for Ladkin – and for his bosses in New York – is turning a sold-out weekend into a lasting legacy for the sport here. 

“What we look to do is what’s unique about baseball. It’s got rich history, but there’s also a real connection with the cities that they play in – the Yankees are a great example of that. So what we’ll do is play off the cities, the culture, the ballpark experience,” he says. Followers of MLB’s various social channels will have seen London-based chefs visiting St Louis and Chicago for an insight into the ballpark food of both cities (think deep dish pizzas and pulled pork) as part of a series called Home Plate. 

Baseball’s about more than the game

Ben Ladkin, MLB Europe

It’s all part of what Ladkin thinks not just baseball but all sports need to do to keep audiences invested and engaged. 

“You’ve got to keep people the content how they want it, in the way they want it,” Ladkin says, in response to a question about whether or not a world of short attention spans can sit neatly alongside a sport that can at times drag its feet. It’s not a problem unique to baseball – even football bosses have complained about the difficulty of getting people to watch a 90-minute football game – but Ladkin remains optimistic. 

“You have to give people content that’s short and snappy, that’s entertaining, and that’s on (social media) platforms. Hopefully then you can draw them in to the longer-form.” 

Major League Baseball is certainly committed in the longer-term. Perhaps encouraged by the success of the NFL in bringing American football to the UK, League bosses seem invested in London’s success. Ladkin may have to work harder to get those eyeballs, but all signs suggest they’ll be at least 120,000 pairs of them at the converted London Stadium next summer – and who knows where baseball in the UK might go from there.

The St. Louis Cardinals will play the Chicago Cubs in the MLB World Tour: London Series 2023 on June 24-25 at London Stadium. Tickets are available now at ticketmaster.co.uk/mlb

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