LONDON (AFP) – Baseball wants to conquer the European market and by tossing historic rivals the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees together in London next year, Major League baseball commissioner Rob Manfred hopes to strike a first significant blow.
However the 59-year-old American lawyer, who has been commissioner since replacing Bud Selig in 2015, cautioned against this two-year agreement of playing a pair of regular-season games in London as the lead-in to a franchise being created.
“Let’s walk before we can run,” Manfred told a press conference after the announcement in central London. “It is our intention to play more games and build a fanbase.
“We are interested in franchises outside America.
“With our season schedule it is difficult but as countries come closer in terms of travel time it could happen.”
Manfred, who first began working with the MLB in 1987, agreed bringing the Red Sox and Yankees to London was a statement of how serious the sport treats the challenge of breaking into the European market.
The Yankees have won a record 27 World Series titles while the Red Sox, who endured 80-plus years without one from the time they traded the legendary Babe Ruth to New York, ended that drought in 2004 and have won two more since.
“We wanted to bring the best possible match-up we could bring here,” Manfred told AFP.
“It is an indication of the fact that London and Europe is a priority for us and we have put our best foot forward.”
Manfred, who since taking over as commissioner has implemented new rules to make the game faster, said Europe is seen as a prime market or new frontier to break into for the sport.
The MLB has taken its product abroad before but to baseball-loving markets such as Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico.“It (Europe) is an important market for us,” said Manfred.
“The economic power of Europe obviously is very appealing as opposed to other parts of the world.
“We do think there is an affinity with cricket for example in growing a fanbase, we think it is fertile ground.”
– ‘Our most famous derby’ –
Manfred praised London Mayor Sadiq Khan for his part in bringing the games to London, as well as his ability to pitch a ball, having thrown out the ceremonial first pitch before a New York Mets and Minnesota Twins game in 2016.
Khan for his part said, like the NFL and NBA have succeeded in doing down the years in London, the matches will be sell-outs.
The NFL has a 10-year deal with English Premier League giants Tottenham Hotspur to stage two games a season at their new state-of-the-art stadium once it is finished and also play matches at Wembley.
“Be prepared for the most exciting games of your career,” said Khan.
“You will be seeing two of the most successful teams in sporting history.
“One plea, please don’t ask me for tickets!”
Red Sox owner John W Henry, whose Fenway Group also owns Champions League finalists Liverpool, said English football fans would feel at home at the games.
“This will feature our most famous derby and arouses the same emotions as Merseyside and Manchester derbies,” said Henry.“This will expose to those who may not be aware of it the greatest of rivalries.”
While there have been some distasteful incidents this season from West Ham fans, including invading the pitch during play, New York Yankees co-chairman Hal Steinbrenner hinted similar passions may surface in their games.
“This rivalry is 117 years old (if my maths is right) and has seen over 2,000 games played between them,” said Steinbrenner.
“Sometimes it is downright bitter (the rivalry). That is down to the passion of our fans.”