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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

UAE could be home to Major League Baseball as sport looks to go global

Los Angeles Dodgers have a deal to sponsor junior version of baseball here in conjunction with Emirates Airline and this country would be an ideal MLB destination

Players at the Dubai Little League complex in Dubai. Major League Baseball could become a feature in the UAE. Mike Young / The National
Players at the Dubai Little League complex in Dubai. Major League Baseball could become a feature in the UAE. Mike Young / The National

Major League Baseball (MLB) will stage regular season games overseas from next June and those matches in London are only the start of the sport’s internationalisation.

In June 2019, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees will face off in the UK capital, and the MLB’s expansion could soon include the Middle East.

“We are observing interest in recent years in potential partners in the Middle East to do various activities and are looking carefully at opportunities and expect to become more active there,” says Chris Park, MLB’s executive vice president for product marketing.

With around 50,000 American expats in the UAE, according to a 2015 estimate by BQ Magazine, the sport here has a natural foothold.

According to Nielsen Sports SDNA research, which surveys interest in various sports in different countries around the world, 14 per cent of respondents aged 16-69 in the UAE said they were interested in baseball in 2017.

BeIN has broadcast MLB in the Middle East since 2015 and can screen up to two games a week, and one of the sport’s most iconic names already has a sponsorship agreement in Dubai.

In 2016, the Los Angeles Dodgers signed a deal to sponsor the Dubai Little League – the junior version of baseball - in conjunction with Emirates Airline.

“We look at baseball as a global sport,” says Lon Rosen, the Dodgers’ chief marketing officer and executive vice president.

“We look at different countries around the world and Emirates brought this opportunity to us; the more people who buy our brand the better. What’s important to us and Emirates is to grow our brands worldwide and we’re now in our third season in Dubai.

“We send equipment there and in 2017 Chase Utley and Justin Turner [Dodgers players] went to Dubai. The guys wanted to go there. They go for five or days, do some clinics and appearances with Emirates and get to see the country. Right now, we’re deciding who to send this December.”

The sponsorship of the Dubai Little League runs until February 2021 and came as part of Emirates’ deal to become the Dodgers airline partner in February 2016.

In LA, Emirates has home plate and foul pole signage at Dodgers’ games along with a hospitality lounge. The company also activates the deal through signage, occasional ceremonial first pitches and fan appreciation activities.

“This was a historic partnership as it is Emirates’ first major league team sponsorship in the US,” says an Emirates spokesman. “Our sponsorship of the Los Angeles Dodgers has allowed us to connect with baseball fans in the US."

The sponsorship offers Emirates exposure in the United States but, on signing the deal, Sheikh Majid Al Mualla, Emirates’ divisional senior vice president for commercial operations, said the sponsorship was “an opportunity to connect with baseball fans in our home, the UAE”.

Baseball has a long history in the region. Little League was first staged in Saudi Arabia in 1956.

While the UAE is not in the International Baseball Federation, the country is a member of the global association for softball, which is played underarm at ground level rather than overarm from a pitching mound like baseball. The two groups work together.

Kevin Fountain, director of media relations at Little League Media International, says: “Little League has been able to expand its scope internationally more than ever due to strong support from the World Baseball and Softball Confederation and partnerships with national federations around the world.”

A softball league began in Dubai in the early 1980s only to founder after the field used by teams was bought for development. A chance encounter in the competition’s dying days gave the sport a fillip at government level and accelerated the baseball’s expansion.

“I was travelling twice a week from Abu Dhabi to Dubai to play softball and just before the league was due to end, we were asked to clear the field to make way for a helicopter,” says Flo Caro, who at the time was setting up a league in Abu Dhabi.

The game finished and Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, got out of the helicopter. Ms Caro took her chance.

“I asked him to be our patron and he said ‘yes’. There’s no financial contribution, but we got the backing to cement us as an organised league.”

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In 2013, the Adu Dhabi Softball League began on a run-down field at Zayed Sports City with 22 players. Now, more than 200 people play in two seasons running from February to May then September to December and Sheikh Nahyan threw the first ball in the last final.

The Abu Dhabi Softball League has a waiting list for players as the playing fields, now renovated, can only cope with eight teams. A junior section started in 2016 and has attracted 60 children including a number of Emiratis, many of whose parents have studied in the US.

With Duplays, founded in 2007 and which has grown to become what it claims is the UAE's largest adult sport and social club with 100,000 registered members,

also running softball leagues in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, Ms Caro has no doubt that the country is ready for baseball to expand. “We would love to see a team [from MLB] here.”

Benjamin D Goss, an associate professor at Missouri State University, who writes on the internationalisation of baseball, also believes that baseball can expand commercially in the UAE.

“I definitely think so. It’s important to have a strong grassroots presence coupled with effective media distribution of an elite league," he says.

“With the strong presence of Little League and media access to BeIN, Dubai would appear to have both. Also, let’s not ignore the obvious: if it’s sanctioned by the state, it will work and be well supported financially.”

State support exists with softball in Abu Dhabi, so could the UAE host MLB baseball games in the future?

Expanding MLB from 30 to 32 clubs would also allow a switch to a system of 16 teams in four divisions, and commissioner Rob Manfred has repeatedly hinted that any franchise expansion would be outside the United States.

The favoured destinations for a new MLB franchise are closer to the baseball’s heartland.

Canada already has an MLB franchise in the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal hosted the Expos until the side went into a downward spiral after a 1994 players’ strike and relocated to Washington a decade later. Mexico and Puerto Rico have already hosted regular season MLB games.

Going further afield is difficult due to baseball’s logistics.

There are 162 matches in an MLB season, which starts in March and finishes in late October. Finding a gap to take teams to Europe for league fixtures is difficult, which was one of the reasons that the announcement of the London games took so long.

This would be an unrealistic leap too far says Prof Goss, who suggests that baseball’s international expansion is more likely to emulate basketball and American football

“MLB has seen the path and pattern for international expansion be paved and polished by other sports, particularly the NBA.

“It’s been kind of like [US pharmacies] Walgreens and CVS. CVS’ corporate strategy is to let Walgreens do the research on where to build a new location, then shortly thereafter, CVS will drop a store nearby, because they know that they can do business there, too.”

The MLB’s Chris Park says his sport’s “large-scale outreach programme” will involve more games abroad, but adds: “There’s a broad range of areas that fall under the rubric of our international activities.”

The Dodgers are stimulating interest in baseball through clinics in Dubai during the off-season, which is an area that the sport is only just beginning to explore commercially.

The Middle East’s climate in baseball’s off-season makes the region a perfect destination for a visit.

Emirates says it has no “immediate plans” to bring the Dodgers to Dubai for a game, but baseball’s tendency to emulate other sports makes an off-season visit a possibility.

Last year, Ben Morel, National Basketball Association's managing director and senior vice president for Europe, Middle East and Africa, was reported to have suggested that Dubai could stage an NBA game by 2020, probably in preseason.

Finding a suitable sized field would represent one challenge but the work done at Zayed Sport City shows what patronage can achieve.

Asked if the MLB could play games in the Middle East, Mr Rosen says: “That’s up to the MLB, but in the future that’s a possibility. Regular season ends in October and the World Series goes on until the first week of November then spring training starts in the middle of February. It’s never impossible in the early off-season.”

With Mr Park admitting that MLB is talking to local partners in the region, baseball in the UAE looks set for commercial expansion.