Marketing / 08.06.19
Major League Baseball Hits a Home Run With Its First-Ever European Games
The 2019 Major League Baseball (MLB) season has been a historic one so far. One for the record books, in fact! The Oakland Athletics’ Mike Fiers’ threw the 300th no-hitter in MLB history (and the second of his career) in a game marked by a spectacular, home run-robbing catch by Ramón Laureano. The Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis ended his historic 0-54 slump. And future Hall-of-Famer CC Sabathia became only the third left-hander in MLB history to record 3,000 strikeouts.
But perhaps the most heralded event took place June 29-30 when the Boston Red Sox took on the New York Yankees in the first MLB game ever played in Europe. That first Saturday contest drew more than 59,600 spectators to London Stadium in England, which was originally built for the 2012 Olympics and is now home to the West Ham United Football Club. The fans got their money’s worth with a four-hour-plus slugfest ending in a 17-13 victory for the Bronx Bombers. The next day was sold out, too, and featured a Yankees win.
MLB, which first put an office in London nearly 25 years ago, touted the two-game series in its marketing materials as “Old rivalry. New ground.” The original ticket allotment sold out within 30 minutes, with many of the most passionate fans of both teams deciding to make the approximately 3,500-mile trek “across the pond” to bear witness to baseball history. Red Sox season ticket holders purchased an average of 5,831 seats per game and Yankees buyers 4,752 during the presale. Once there, they took the Jubilee or Central line to the Queen Elizabeth Park instead of the No. 4 to the Bronx or the Green line to Beantown’s Kenmore Square.
Charlie Hill, MLB’s Vice President of International Strategy, remarks, “70% of ticket purchasers were from the U.K. and 20% were from the U.S. During the initial ticket sale period, Red Sox and Yankees season ticket holders were given an exclusive opportunity to purchase tickets initially. Following this, the focus was around engaging with the U.K. audience primarily.”
He continues, “We were delighted that the demand for tickets was so incredibly high and had such a positive response. We began by building awareness that MLB was coming to London before moving to educate and entertain new and existing fans about the nuances of the game. Around ticket on-sale, Yankees legend Alex Rodriguez and current Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. visited the U.K., creating media opportunities and generating hype around the London Series.”
Advertorial and editorial media partnerships were then dovetailed with a program of digital and out-of-home media to support the ticket on-sale and generate buzz in the weeks leading up to the London games. “We knew that demand was likely to exceed supply, so we made sure that fans who were unable to obtain tickets were still able to participate in a variety of ancillary events,” Hill says.
MLB also “educated” British and European fans about baseball ahead of the games. Barbara McHugh, MLB Senior Vice President of Marketing, reports, “We created a Baseball 101 page on the London Series website that went over much of the basics of the game. Fans who were on our London Series database were sent the link. We created videos distributed on social media with entertainment personalities. And, at the games, we used the scoreboard to provide educational information about baseball and the activities that were taking place on the field.”
Indeed, the scoreboard for the weekend read Runs, Hits and Errors instead of the usual R-H-E. The league also had 700 volunteers with 150 in the stadium that taught fans how to sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” Throughout the two games, the public address announcer helped inform fans what constitutes a hit, an out, a double-play grounder, and why some players will stop at first base instead of second or third or simply rounding the bases. Fans were also reminded on numerous occasions they could keep the foul balls.
In addition, fans were asked to sing “Sweet Caroline,” just as they do at Boston’s Fenway Park. A hawker was even brought over from the States to train British vendors on the fine art of selling hot dogs and beer. Finally, a variation of the Washington Nationals’ Racing Presidents took place between innings — but featuring Winston Churchill, King Henry VIII, the Loch Ness Monster and the late Queen vocalist Freddie Mercury. Fortunately, British and European fans had no problem sitting for two long games, considering England had just recently played a Cricket World Cup game against Australia that started at 10:30 a.m. and lasted until 6 p.m.
So, why has opening up Europe — and London, specifically — been so important to Major League Baseball? McHugh replies, “London has consistently embraced a range of sporting events, and it is a sporting city. London has the facilities needed to hold an event of this scale, a proven infrastructure to deliver world-class sporting events, and Mayor Sadiq Khan has been very supportive to help bring MLB to the city. In addition, the geographic location makes sense where games can be shown at a reasonable time in the U.S., and it provides easy travel for the teams along with baseball fans from other European countries.
Hill concurred, commenting, “We are consistently looking to build new relationships with fans and partners all over the world, and bringing such an iconic rivalry to a global city like London provided us with a great platform to continue that process.”
He adds, “Europe is already an important market for MLB and has been for a number of years. We currently have … a player development pipeline with over 20 players under contract to MLB teams coming from the Czech Republic, France, Russia, Italy, Holland, Germany, Lithuania, Moldova and Spain. Our media footprint across Europe continues to grow, and we have 12 media partners showing games in 35 European countries. In addition, Europe represents MLB’s second largest international consumer products region. Approximately 30% of international consumer products revenue in 2018 came from Europe.”
Hill, McHugh and their colleagues are still working through the review process of the London Series. But, clearly, they learned a lot from this initial foray. “For many fans, this series will have been their first exposure to baseball,” Hill says. “The focus for this year was to leave them with a positive impression and encourage a new generation of fans to continue to engage our sport — an objective supported by our grassroots activities and growing media presence. We will look to continue to do this year round and build on it as we increase momentum ahead of the 2020 games.”
Next summer’s series is already planned and will pit the St. Louis Cardinals against the Chicago Cubs. Commissioner Rob Manfred is also eyeing continental Europe for future games and is hopeful the next collective bargaining agreement will permit such expansion. Hill concludes, “We are keen to expand the footprint of international games around the world. When we look ahead, we do think that playing games in European cities, in addition to London, would be an exciting step forward.”
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Tags: Sports , Venues