Earlier this year, West Ham United’s London Stadium was packed with eager British baseball fans as MLB’s London Series came to town.
In a two-game extravaganza on June 24 and 25, the UK’s capital was treated to the latest edition of the Route 66, or I-55, rivalry when the St. Louis Cardinals took on the Chicago Cubs. Chicago won Saturday’s game, 9-1, while St. Louis took Sunday’s 7-5.
The Cardinals and Cubs’ matchup wasn’t the first time that West Ham United’s London Stadium has been filled with countless MLB jerseys. The inaugural MLB London Series was held at the same venue in 2019, when arguably baseball’s most famous team, the New York Yankees, faced their old rivals, the Boston Red Sox.
It’s clear for all to see that the UK has well and truly developed an ever-growing passion for all types of US sport – not just baseball.
“We know that American sports really cut through,” former England rugby player and NFL superfan, Ugo Monye, told Decyfr.
“We had MLB play two matches back-to-back … there were over 100,000 people that watched it, and the broadcasting figures were exemplary as well.”
🗣️ "We know that American sports really cut through"@ugomonye spoke to Decyfr about the 2023 MLB #LondonSeries, and looked ahead to this year’s NFL London Games, as the UK’s appetite for US sport continues to grow 🇺🇸#Decyfr #NFL #NFLUK | @DecyfrBallpark pic.twitter.com/nj25VOpKzG
— Decyfr Sport (@DecyfrSport) June 29, 2023
MLB’s desire to make a huge splash in the UK market isn’t entirely shocking when you consider the NFL’s success in London.
The NFL has held the London Games since 2007, and the UK’s appetite for American football action has increased year after year. From 2007 to 2012, the league held just one game in the UK each season. Eventually, one game became three, at stadiums including Wembley, Twickenham, and the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which was purpose-built to stage NFL games.
Now, the NFL’s journey overseas has become an important, and highly anticipated, part of the league’s calendar. Tickets for the games sell out in minutes, and this year, London’s de facto team, the Jacksonville Jaguars, will become the first to play two regular season games outside of the US in the same season – and are choosing to do so in London.
“I hope that we’re seen as leaders,” Jacksonville’s VP of UK Operations, Maria Gigante, told Neil Reynolds on a recent episode of the Decyfr Handoff when asked if the team see themselves as pioneers in the era of NFL internationalisation.
American football’s growth in the UK – helped by a fanbase initially established in the 1980s, when Channel 4 originally began broadcasting NFL highlights – hasn’t just captivated and thrilled die-hard fans. It’s also enticed casual ones.
“Everyone, whether it’s passively on social media or [from] watching it on TV, has an awareness of what the NFL is,” said Monye.
“But there’s no better way of converting your casual fan into a habitual follower than coming and enjoying the live experience – because there’s more than just what happens on the field, it’s the event, it’s the day itself.”
If not, watch it here ⬇️
— Decyfr Sport (@DecyfrSport) June 27, 2023
Pageantry and theatrics are a gigantic part of American sports, and the NFL and MLB are no exceptions. Fan zones, pre-game stunts and halftime shows are all key when staging any kind of showpiece event – and of course, MLB were sure to get in on the action. The league staged the ‘Trafalgar Square Takeover’ alongside this year’s London Series, a three-day fan festival that featured games, authentic American food, DJs, and merchandise.
The NFL have staged countless events internationally over the years, such as last season’s NFL on South Bank takeover, and teams have even started taking control of these initiatives themselves, as the Jaguars recently concluded their very own summer tour of the UK. However, these initiatives are made easier by the NFL’s Global Markets Program – which allows teams to market themselves, and attempt to grow a fanbase, in different international territories – something MLB is missing, making baseball much more US focused.
The UK clearly has a passion for US sports that’s clear to see, and the NFL’s international adventure shows no signs of stopping – the league’s commissioner, Roger Goodell, has openly discussed the possibility of a European division. They’ve established the blueprint for other American sports to follow if they want their leagues to go global.
It just remains to be seen if the 2024 MLB London Series, featuring the New York Mets and the Philadelphia Phillies, will have studied these plans as they try to hit a home run in the UK market.
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