The Regular Season Starts Sort Of
The Dodgers and the Diamondbacks started the regular season in Australia yesterday, with Clayton Kershaw getting the win in a 3-1 Dodger victory. The two teams play again today in a game that will also count in the regular season standings. Meanwhile, the rest of MLB will still be playing another week of exhibition games.
The whole playing-regular-season-games-abroad thing is kind of weird, and many players, most vocally the Dodgers’ Zack Greinke, don’t like having to make a trip half-way around the world to play the games. However, it certainly makes sense to enhance MLB’s brand by playing in distant markets.
Major league teams have now played four two-game series in Japan since 2000, the last time starting the 2012 regular season, as well as playing single games in Mexico in 1999 and in Puerto Rico in 2001. It’s probably only a matter of time before regular season major league games are played in South Korea, Taiwan, other Latin American countries and even mainland China.
The NBA, NHL, and elite soccer leagues and teams have done an extremely good job of establishing themselves as global brands with followings wherever their respective sports are played. Even the NFL has worked long and hard to establish interest in American Football in Europe, despite no history of people playing the sport outside of North America.
While baseball won’t have the overall global popularity of soccer or basketball any time soon, interest in the sport is growing as rapidly as any other major sport in the world. There are now long-standing professional leagues in Holland and Italy (dating back, respectively, to 1922 and 1948, although I don’t know how long either league has actually been professional), and baseball is developing a following elsewhere in the European Union. Mainland China has had a professional baseball league since 2002, and MLB sources say its only a matter of time before a Chinese national reaches the major leagues.
Interest in baseball is also growing rapidly in Brazil (centered around the country’s largest city Sao Paolo, which has a large ethnic Japanese community, reportedly leading to a Japanese style of play in that country) and Columbia, a country sandwiched by baseball-mad Venezuela and Panama.
Baseball is booming in Australia and numerous Australians, mostly pitchers, have played in MLB and Japan’s NPB in recent years, so playing season-opening games in Sydney is a logical choice. If more South Korean players make the majors in the relatively near future, that country will likely be the next country to get a few major league games to goose interest in that country.