This time next year, Major League Baseball (MLB) will pack up its bats and travel to Europe to play two regular season games in London for the first time.
This trans-Atlantic trade route, sport’s version of the Silk Road, is now well-travelled and MLB follow a trail blazed by the NFL and the NBA.
But will baseball find a space in the UK’s sporting calendar in the same way that the NFL and the NBA have? Regular season basketball games have already been taking place in London for seven years, while the NFL has been bringing its A-game for even longer – every year since 2007.
Certainly current market shares for the sports in the UK display a connection between the length of time the leagues have been playing games in the UK and the fan-base they enjoy – see our chart below.
But while the British sports market offers great potential for growth for US sports, it remains dominated by soccer, whose market share (40%) is almost twice that of its nearest rival (tennis on 22%). The spoils in the US market, by contrast, are more evenly shared with the NFL out ahead and the NBA, MLB and NHL enjoying a fairly even share of the riches (see our Special Relationship report for more detail on this).
In this report we examine the progress of NFL and soccer in both the US and the UK, looking at whether the ‘Special Relationship’ between the two countries extends to these sports and how fans in America and the UK are different – and similar.
So, from a standing start, can MLB expect to bank on a British success? Looking back at the experiences of the NBA and NFL in London, we’d say, in the short term, yes.
In terms of attendance, both the NBA and the NFL have sold out their games from the beginning. The first NBA game – which ended in triple overtime – attracted nearly 19,000 people to the O2 arena. The inaugural NFL game sold 40,000 seats in the first 90 minutes of sales, eventually selling twice that amount and filling Wembley Stadium. All this bodes well for MLB’s London ticket sales (the game will take place at the 2012 Olympic stadium).
What about the conversation the games generate in the UK? Let’s look at some of the data we collected around the last two visits by the NFL and NBA to the UK?
You can see a big Buzz bump for the NBA this year (Buzz is a net score of whether respondents have heard anything positive/negative over the past couple of weeks). And below, you can see the sustained increase in our Word of Mouth metric (have you talked about this sports event in the past couple of weeks?) which the NFL enjoyed in the UK during its run of games last autumn.
Clearly past performance of other sports is no guarantee of success for MLB but the data indicates there is plenty of appetite amongst UK audiences for US sports – both as a first-out-the-blocks novelty and when games become better-established in the calendar. Longer term, both the NFL and NBA have considered the possibility of London franchises. If that is to be the end-game for the MLB too, the game next year will be a critical test.