Can baseball make it in cricket-crazy India?

When he took over as senior vice-president in charge of Major League Baseball’s (MLB) international business last year, Jim Small had already spent 15 years expanding baseball’s footprint across Asia. He is credited with establishing MLB’s first Asia office in Tokyo, Japan, in 2003 that saw huge growth in baseball’s media rights in the country, and overseeing the game’s development in China that now boasts of “more than 30 million unique programme participants”. But one of the biggest markets in the world was still untouched — India. So, one of the first things that Small pitched to the owners was to make a foray into the Indian market.“Great, let us know what to do,” the owners told him. A few months later, MLB opened its office in India (New Delhi) — its sixth outside the US — which recently completed a year.“India was clearly a place we had been interested in for a while. We knew that there were opportunities there but hadn’t yet figured out a way to harness it, mainly because it needed an investment,” Small told ET Sport.“(Since) we weren’t going to make money in India for many years, it took time to be able to get owners to the point where they were ready to make such an investment.“Now that we are there, we are committed. The owners believe in the long-term opportunities that India presents,” he added.Similar to cricketFor MLB, entering the Indian market made sense, both commercially as well as technically. Besides India being the second most populous country in the world (140 crore people) and one of the most promising economies despite the recent hiccups, there are many similarities between baseball and ‘India’s unofficial religion’ cricket — these are the only two sports that involve throwing a ball, hitting a ball and catching a ball — that make this a lucrative endeavour.“We saw an opportunity in the familiarity that Indians have with the bat and ball sport,” Small said.77314406“Let me give you an example. Five years ago I visited Delhi, where I saw some kids who had just started playing baseball. They were hardly 13-14 years old. They were doing what we call a double-play drill. In baseball, you can get two outs in one play if you throw the ball to the right base.“The drill looked terribly inefficient, the second baseman who has to go and touch the base was doing it with the wrong foot. But it was expected as they were new to baseball.“But every one of those kids, when they got the ball on the second base, turned and threw a laser beam to the first base. Just boom! I was like, ‘ok, that’s it!’.“There are very few 13-14-year-olds in the world who can throw like that.“This shows that the ability to throw, catch and hit the ball is transferable, whether it’s cricket ball or baseball. This is what one of the advantages we have in India,” he added.77314424Last year, a grassroots programme, called MLB First Pitch, was launched to give Indian kids a taste of baseball. Through this programme, coaching clinics and webinars were conducted in around 320 schools in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru. According to MLB India’s estimates, around 30,000 participants attended these programmes.“In terms of learnings from the first year, one thing we have noticed is that we were spot on with the idea of First Pitch,” Small said.Now, MLB plans to build on the good response it received in its first year and cover more schools across the country.“The idea is to go to more schools but also go deeper within those schools. So, instead of just coming in for a day at a school, let’s figure out a way to stay there throughout the year, or throughout a three-month period,” Small said.Different approach in IndiaOf the five other overseas MLB offices, three were in the countries where baseball and MLB were already hugely popular: Japan, Mexico and Dominique Republic. The fourth one in China proved to be “successful” as MLB managed to tap into the vast human resources available in the country. “In June,” Small said, “We passed NBA as the most-engaging international sporting brand on TikTok in China.” In Britain, where it opened its fifth office, some MLB franchises are now big commercial properties and they have also held their first game in Europe last year when New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox took their rivalries to London.“When we started investing in China, there were roughly 2,00,000 baseball players. Right now, according to our last research, there are about 8.1 million (80,10,000) players. Over that period of time, the government in China built baseball facilities in about 200 stadiums,” Small said about the success of their programme in the country.But MLB is not looking to replicate the formula in India as the two countries are completely different in terms of doing business.“India is more decentralized than China,” Small said. “The government controls almost everything in China. So, whether you are putting the game on television or running school programmes, you need government support and approval before you do anything.“It’s not that you don’t need government approval in India, but it’s more decentralized. If you are dealing with school systems, you need to work with the government here as well, but there are individual pockets of baseball already being run outside of schools that you can create working relationships with.”Elaborating on his plans for India, Small said: “There are certain things that we are good at, like development of baseball players and creating infrastructure for baseball. What we have to do is continue to learn, like we have in the last one year, and try to transfer some of the success that we’ve had. But we won’t look at that strategy based on what we did in China. We will look at what works in India.”Three pillarsSmall identified three aspects of spreading a sport in any country as: participation, content and live events. For participation, MLB has launched the First Pitch programme that is supposed to lay the foundation for the launch of its academy in the coming years. For content, they are using social media’s deep penetration in India and have also reached a broadcasting deal with Star Sports and FanCode. Live events will take some time, though.“Look at Indian cricket. There is participation (everyone plays it), there is content (you can watch a cricket match and all of the stuff that goes behind that match on Star Sports, or on social media platforms) and then you have live events (actual games that people can go to),” he said.“So we are looking at these three as the pillars of our strategy in India. We have programmes that fit into each one of them.”The incentivesIn India, sports isn’t just an extra-curricular activity, it’s a career, a way of climbing up the economic ladder. Children dedicate their lives to earn enough success in a sport that can make them eligible to get at least a government job, if not international fame. On the other hand, there are parents who find sports a complete waste of their children’s time.The participation in sports has increased over the last two decades as the incentives have gone up. Although cricket outweighs all other sports together in terms of money, mushrooming of domestic leagues have proved to be beneficial for several other sports and players.So, besides the two extremes that baseball, a foreign sport, will face in its attempt to find a place in the Indian hearts, it also has to offer some incentives if it wants to attract enough children to make good on the “tens of millions of dollars’ it has planned to invest in the country.Acknowledging that incentives are important for any sport, Small has a proposition for the parents and their children.“We set up three academies in China and we’ve had around 100 players who have graduated from these academies. Seven of those players signed professional contracts to play baseball professionally in MLB. The rest went on to colleges in the United States or in China. That’s the value proposition that we are able to create,” Small said.“We know that education is incredibly important for Indian families. If you create academies there, which is definitely something we are looking at down the line, and be able to place Indian kids in the US universities, we know it’s really valuable. Indians are already the number one H-1B visa holders in the US. So, kids are coming, graduating from high school in India and going to college in the US and coming back. We are building that as a value proposition.“We know it’s really hard to become a Major League Baseball player, but once they achieve that, Major League players are really well compensated. That’s a really tough thing to do.“We are going to be very careful to say that because it would be disingenuous of us to go into a school and say, ‘hey, your kid is going to be making as much money as Mookie Betts’. That would be abhorrent. But it’s possible and should be recognized as a step on that ladder.”Will all that be enough for MLB to create a space in the lucrative Indian market? Only time will tell.

source https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/sports/major-league-baseball-vp-jim-small-dreams-big-for-baseball-in-cricket-crazy-india/articleshow/77314356.cms

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