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Why is the baseball season starting in Australia?

Mar 21, 2014, 7:59 AM EDT

Sydney Cricket Ground Getty Images

Baseball has long dispensed with the Cincinnati Reds getting the first game of the season at home. I’m generally OK with this. People in Cincinnati complain about it all the time because they claim status as the oldest baseball franchise and thus feel entitled to the first game each year, but the fact is (a) the current Braves franchise has way more of a claim to being the oldest franchise, not the Reds; and (b) how does the fact that baseball has been played elsewhere earlier detract from Opening Day festivities if you’re on the ground in Cincinnati enjoying things?  You still get your parade and your day baseball and your soupy chili, so don’t worry about it.

But the Opening Day grumpiness has spread beyond Cincinnati as baseball has eschewed an American Opening Day more and more in recent years. In 1999 the Rockies and Padres met in Monterrey, Mexico to kick things off. The season began in Puerto Rico in 2001. It kicked off in Japan in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012. Now, it begins in Australia, with the Dodgers facing the Diamondbacks at 4AM Eastern time tomorrow morning.

Why?

Baseball’s answer is that it wishes to globalize the sport. Here’s Bud Selig in the press release announcing the Australia series last year:

“The globalization of our game continues to be paramount to Major League Baseball, and Australia is an essential part of our long-term efforts to grow the sport.”

Likewise, late MLBPA Executive Director Michael Weiner said that the players “view this series as an important step in furthering their commitment to help increase the global popularity of baseball.”

Popularity and globalization can mean a couple of different, albeit related things. On the one hand there is popularity of the sport within the country. Getting the Australians to like baseball more and play baseball more. To develop little leagues and prep leagues and the like. To boost the importance and quality of Australia’s (already respectable) national team for the WBC and, perhaps one day, the Olympics if baseball is restored as an event. To help support the Australian Baseball League, Australian Baseball Federation and MLB Australian Academy Program. This is the stuff we hear a lot about in connection with this series.

Of course, it’s probably worth noting that the Australians have done quite an excellent job of growing the sport in their country already. Its little league participation is large, trailing only the United States, Canada and Mexico, and recently began competing in the Little League World Series. It has produced multiple major leaguers in recent years, including Grant Balfour, Dave Nilsson, Peter Moylan and Graeme Lloyd. In 2004 Australia won a silver medal at the Athens Olympics.

Given that strong foundation, it’s wrong to think of the Dodgers and Diamondbacks coming to to Australia as some sort of “let’s show Australians what baseball is all about” thing. And it’s certainly wrong to say that Major League Baseball’s trip to Sydney is some silly “The Gods Must Be Crazy” exercise in playing baseball where it isn’t understood, wanted or loved. Australians aren’t baseball fanatics like the Japanese, but there is already considerable knowledge and appreciation for the sport there.

Which leads to the second, less-publicized aspect of Major League Baseball’s visit to Australia: marketing. I don’t think it’s some dirty secret nor do I think anyone associated with Major League Baseball would deny it if asked point blank, but along with growing Australia’s appreciation of baseball, a clear co-motivation for this series is to grow Major League Baseball’s brand in Australia. To give Australian fans a glimpse of baseball played at a significantly higher level than they’re used to seeing and maybe whet their appetites for the MLB product. Maybe it leads to a fledgling broadcasting deal there? Maybe it sells a bunch of Diamondbacks and Dodgers caps? Maybe it sells some MLB.tv subscriptions? Again: nothing wrong with that at all, and not anything I think anyone is hiding or ashamed of. It’s in Major League Baseball’s interests to grow its brand and this presents a good opportunity to do that.

Ultimately, it’s only two games. And ultimately U.S. fans will think of their own team’s Opening Day as the beginning of the baseball season. Even Dodgers and Dbacks fans will likely become more engaged once their teams are back in Los Angeles and Phoenix. The stuff going on tomorrow and Sunday in Sydney will be forgotten here. Which is fine, because it’s not for us. It’s for the Australians and the league.

  1. paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:07 AM

    That sure was an awful lot of words to say “money”.

    • temporarilyexiled - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:47 AM

      And it sure doesn’t have to do with playing the best schedule. Even if these teams split the series and suffer from the travel, this fan of another NL West team won’t smile. Surely MLB can figure out a way to export their product during the offseason, difficult as that may be.

      • paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:01 AM

        Yep. There is no reason at all that baseball fans in Australia should care more about an MLB regular season game than some exhibition games.

      • temporarilyexiled - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:14 AM

        True. But then you’re saying that money comes first. I know, I know, in the scheme of things, MLB’s marketing efforts > the schedule. I’m just saying I don’t like it.

      • Old Gator - Mar 21, 2014 at 3:11 PM

        Just out of curiosity, are the Bums or Snakes charging their season ticket holders for two games they can’t attend? If not, does everyone who is complaining about this really go to all 81 home games every season?

  2. jrbdmb - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:13 AM

    I’m OK with MLB Opening Day in Australia / Japan / wherever, since the English Premier League and German Bundesliga both play their opening game of the season in the U.S.

    … oh wait. Only American sports leagues seem willing to sell out the sport to grab a few more overseas eyeballs. The EPL in particular seems to do pretty well here despite not having any regular season games over here.

    • bmfc1 - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:28 AM

      Excellent point jurbdmb. MLB is willing, if not eager, to move these games, thereby making their fans stay up ridiculously late/get up riciulously early, to make a few bucks. Let’s see the EPL move a few matches from the “fixture” to the US, and not a “friendly” either.

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:01 AM

        Football already has a global following whereas baseball doesn’t. It’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison.

      • js20011041 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:45 AM

        It’s soccer, not football. Football is a distinctly superior sport, whereas soccer exists so that the pretentious and hipsters can pretend to like sports.

      • Steve A - Mar 21, 2014 at 1:44 PM

        The pretentious ones are those who insist on calling it football. Soccer is an acceptable term for the game. The term started in England, as well.

      • js20011041 - Mar 21, 2014 at 6:48 PM

        Not sure if your comment is directed at people who refer to soccer as football in general or you think I’m referring to soccer as football. I’m not. When I say football, I mean football. The only kind of football that exists. I refer to soccer as soccer.

  3. koufaxmitzvah - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:16 AM

    Beware: Between Kay’s necklace and Craig’s dome, there is a lot of sparkle in the video.

  4. chc4 - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:38 AM

    If MLB’s #1 goal is globalization they wouldn’t be gouging the Australians. Have you seen the ticket prices for these 2 games? It’s absolutely insane. You’d think making it affordable would be the best way to generate goodwill/interest. MLB can certainly do what it wants… no problem there. But don’t pee on us and try to convince us it’s raining.

    • chitomartinez - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:58 AM

      Can you give us a sense of the cost in US dollars?

      I’d think they would give away tickets to fill up the stadium, just to make baseball *appear* popular. Perhaps there was some miscalculation on MLB’s part.

      • chc4 - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:07 AM

        Lower level seats range from $200-500 per ticket. Only tickets under $100 are standing room only in the outfield.

        Good point about MLB possibly not setting ticket prices but you know they had a say in it. The issue is that the Dbacks and Dodgers have to get their cut since these take away home games for them. Then the Sydney organizers have to make their cut.

    • paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:12 AM

      I doubt those prices were set by MLB, it isn’t like whomever they are partnered with in AU aren’t trying to maximize profits on this deal on their end. MLB probably got a flat fee for agreeing to the deal so that their end of the bargain wasn’t risky.

    • realitypolice - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:26 AM

      You seem pretty sure that it’s MLB deciding what the owner of the stadium in Sydney are charging for tickets.

  5. xpensivewinos - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:47 AM

    Not even starting the season in the United States.

    I present to you, the geniuses who run America’s former National Pastime…….

  6. nymets4ever - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:48 AM

    So we can identify who the ignorant America-centric assclowns are, a la Greinke.

    • dan1111 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:23 AM

      There are legitimate reasons other than xenophobia to not want to skip half of spring training and travel halfway around the world to start the season.

      • realitypolice - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:27 AM

        How are they skipping half of spring training? Other than the 14 hour flight, when have they not been able to train?

      • lanflfan - Mar 21, 2014 at 4:01 PM

        While both teams have been able to practice, this is a huge break in the routine of camp, they have lost several exhibition games and are obviously not at their usual training facilities. While I am sure the Sydney grounds are beautiful, they were not designed for baseball. The best way to get into game shape is playing regularly against adequate competition, and outside of the two real games this weekend that is not the case.

  7. chitomartinez - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:52 AM

    Have their been any reports on the expected attendance for the MLB games? The exhibition games look to be about as well attended as a Rays game. The boxscores say 14,385 for the Dodgers game and 16,897 for the Dbacks game.

    • tannins11 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:31 AM

      they are expecting capacity crowds for both games. The SCG will seat roughly 40,000 per game. I think the Aussies were more interested in seeing the two MLB teams play than watching Australia play. Saying that, Australia played pretty well. The pitching was solid both nights. I laughed when the Rays were mentioned as I said there will be more people for opening day in Sydney than the Rays will get at tropicana!!!!

      In relation to high ticket prices, everything in Australia is expensive!! The cost to convert the SCG into a ball park was enormous. Even the dirt was shipped over from San Diego. Its not like having a ready made park in the states. They basically had to send everything over. The players have said that the field has been good to play on and they are happy with the condition.

      Its smart to bring MLB here as baseball is gaining in popularity and there is a decent fan base here. My only complaint is that I dont get to see my Red Sox play here in Sydney!! It should be a great weekend.

  8. sdelmonte - Mar 21, 2014 at 8:56 AM

    My one concern is that two games that count are being played under odd conditions a very long way from home. Just listened a description of the field, and it will have short distance to the fences and a harder-than-usual playing surface. It feels just a bit unfair to make players learn to deal with such things quickly and without any previous games there to review. (The trips to Japan were of course trips to stadiums used for baseball and not cricket).

    And I wonder about the hangover for two teams recovering from that much jetlag. I think some of the clubs that went to Japan in the past took a while to get going again.

    All that said, this is not really different the trips the NBA and NFL foist on their players with the same goals. Everyone is doing it, and it seems to accomplish its goals. And at least baseball (and basketball, to be fair) seem to be reaching out to established fan bases. I remain convinced that the people who go the NFL games in London are the entire active NFL fan base in the UK.

    • paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:15 AM

      There is no evidence whatsoever that an occasional foray of a game or two have any effect whatsoever on local fandom or on the growth of popularity of the sport in the region. MLB hasn’t played baseball anywhere that it wasn’t already popular. Neither has the NBA. The NFL games are about creating a Superbowl-like event atmospher since it is a once/year thing…and really, only about money. It isn’t like English colleges or HS have american football teams now.

      • dan1111 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:27 AM

        Actually, British universities do have American football teams.

        http://www.buafl.net/

      • paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 10:59 AM

        …because the NFL is playing games there or regardless of the fact?

      • thedoubleentandres - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:51 AM

        American football is exploding over here at the minute, I play for a team in Belfast, Northern Ireland and there are hundreds of new faces showing up for tryouts every season.

      • paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:00 AM

        In your opinion, how much of that is general interest and how much of it is related to NFL games being played there?

      • thedoubleentandres - Mar 21, 2014 at 2:38 PM

        The games definately play a huge part, when the teams come over theres all sorts of fan rallys etc that go with it, someone like joe namath will be there throwin passes to kids etc. Its pretty awesome.

        Another thing i can say pretty confidently is that being a die hard man utd fan, i certainly wouldnt care if we ever played a couple games in America and i honestly dont think anyone else would

      • thedoubleentandres - Mar 21, 2014 at 3:12 PM

        Lol i meant joe montana

      • paperlions - Mar 21, 2014 at 3:15 PM

        Ha, well….I’m sure Namath would enjoy a few pints and hitting on any nearby women…not sure he’d complete many passes though.

      • swalkerttu - Mar 31, 2014 at 8:33 AM

        To paperlions’s last comment: completing passes to kids or at women?

  9. tfbuckfutter - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:33 AM

    I will say this again…. taking significant games (like the first game of the season) away from your primary fans sucks. Send them to Australia leading up to the AllStar break. No problem with that. But screwing over your biggest base stinks.

  10. rbj1 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:41 AM

    “a clear co-motivation for this series is to grow Major League Baseball’s brand in Australia.”

    It’s not Australia per se. It’s about Asia. Baseball is already big in Japan and Korea and Taiwan and growing in Australia. But what is the real big market? China. A billion people there. Wait for Opening Day in Beijing. And then New Delhi.

  11. unlost1 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:49 AM

    Do ya think starting 2 games in another country makes them jump on the national pastime bandwagon?

  12. keltictim - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    Not to burst anybody’s preconceived notions about the money grubbing antics of the MLB, but isn’t it better for the sport overall to open future revenue and talent streams in other countries? Doesn’t more money and more talent make the sport more enjoyable? Take off the hate glasses, and look at the benefits.

    • irishmanknowsall - Mar 21, 2014 at 12:20 PM

      How do 14 hour flights figure into a fair and equitable season for all involved? No team in their right mind is going to want to fly there more than once, on Malaysian Air or with anyone else. This was about the benjamins. Pretty sure the Australian team isn’t looking forward to their 81-games-on-the-road, either. Sheesh. Makes far more sense to have a team in Cuba, and in Mexico City. Maybe add a second professional team in Chicago to compete with the White Sox…..

      • swalkerttu - Mar 31, 2014 at 8:32 AM

        The Australian team is a national representative team. They’re not joining the Major Leagues. There is, however, an Australian Baseball League that MLB partly owns.

  13. chunkala - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:28 AM

    Australia cares very little about baseball. Simply more penis envy from MLB as they try to copy and follow the NFL playbook step by step.

    • asimonetti88 - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:45 AM

      That statement is not correct. Baseball is not as popular as rugby or Aussie rules in Australia but it is not far behind cricket I would say. I spent time working in Australia at a basketball league, and American sports in general are fairly popular there. Even American football has a following.

      • irishmanknowsall - Mar 21, 2014 at 12:22 PM

        Might, might make sense to have a developmental league there, but for regular season travel, well, I just don’t see it. Does anyone think any team east of the Mississippi is going to want to fly to Australia on any kind of regular basis?

  14. snidog2014 - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:38 AM

    As a Dodger fan, I am conflicted about all of this. While missing half of spring training as someone suggested earlier is an exaggeration, the fact is that the Dodgers and DBacks have to be “real game ready” ten days earlier than anyone else, which meant starting spring training earlier, which meant a shorter offseason. And having the season opener at 2:00 a.m. where I live is kind of a bummer, but I think I can DVR it and convince myself that I am watching it live in the morning. So as a Dodger fan, I’m pretty okay with it.

    If I were a DBacks fan, though, I might not like it much, because the DBacks only get 79 home games this year because of this trip. I am a Dodgers season ticket holder, and I would be pretty ticked if two of my “home games” were being played across the ocean. I don’t know if it’s a competitive disadvantage or not, as DBacks/Dodgers games in Phoenix are basically Dodgers home games anyway (zing!), but it is a fan disadvantage.

    It’s not as bad as when the NFL does it, though. If an NFL team loses a home game to Europe or wherever, local businesses lose out on 13% of whatever economic benefits they reap from home games — maybe more, actually, assuming that season openers carry more excitement and activity than other games. (And while economic benefits may be overstated by teams looking for public funding for stadiums, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist at all.) Losing two home games in baseball is only about 2.5% of your total, so the impact isn’t as big.

    • irishmanknowsall - Mar 21, 2014 at 12:24 PM

      One does wonder if season ticket holders were charged two games less this year….probably not. The DBacks introduced their newest food item this past week, a, wait for it, $25 hot dog. Personally, I think the bigger news coverage should be of the first fool to buy one. Money is king.

  15. tfbuckfutter - Mar 21, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Been thinking about this, and this is just spitballing, but here’s a possible solution that can really satisfy MLB’s desire to grow the game….

    Take like 10 days to 2 weeks for the All Star Break, and send ALL teams to different countries. Give them a couple days to get acclimated to the time change, and then every team plays a 3 game series in a different country. Then they come back, get a couple days off, have the All Star weekend, and then back to business.

    I’m not going to pretend to be a geographical genius, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you could even schedule it in a way where, on a weekend you could promote a day where you literally have 24 hours of baseball scheduled back-to-back-to-back. That would be MUCH bigger for American fans than a 4:00 am opening day game.

    I don’t know. Anyone have anything they could add to that plan? Any reasons it is just downright awful?

  16. barrybondsisthealltimehomerunking - Mar 21, 2014 at 12:17 PM

    I think it sucks, opening day of baseball should be a celebration for the whole country, this is not.

  17. granadafan - Mar 21, 2014 at 12:33 PM

    Australia have very good cricketers. Many of the skillsets are similar. If they could get some of the bowlers to switch to pitchers at a younger age, they could identify those with the right talent.

  18. rcali - Mar 21, 2014 at 1:09 PM

    I’ll either be sleeping or watching the Bball tourney. Hope my fantasy players do well. Slap in the face to us American MLB fans. Send over an august game if you want.

  19. ndrick731 - Mar 21, 2014 at 1:35 PM

    Stupidity

  20. Steve A - Mar 21, 2014 at 1:42 PM

    I’m really surprised at the negative reaction to these games. These games represent less than 2% of the season. I don’t consider these games to be related to any other Opening Day festivities that will happen stateside. Yeah, it would be better if they were all exhibition games, but then you’re not going to get the stars to go for exhibition games. Serious question: Did the MLBPA have to approve this?

    My two biggest complaints are that they’re playing a night game followed by a day game. Why not play two night games? Or play the day game first? It seems like they’re packing in the real games into a tight schedule. Second, this has screwed up my fantasy leagues. I’ve had drafts all week just to get them in before these two games.

    In the end, I really have no problem with these games.

  21. mikeevergreen - Mar 21, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    Consider the possibility they’re doing some scouting?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Major_League_Baseball_players_from_Australia

  22. anxovies - Mar 21, 2014 at 7:09 PM

    What a great plan! Play a couple of MLB games and turn the Aussies into Jeter/Trout jersey wearing hardball fanatics who wait at the airport for the Fed Ex plane to land with the latest team paraphernalia and stay up all night watching MLB games beamed from the USA. I take back everything I said about Bud being an overpaid moron and the owners being a bunch of privileged cretins.

  23. wetmorepsu12 - Mar 21, 2014 at 9:46 PM

    “Let’s make Opening Day an American national holiday!”

    “Let’s start the season in a far-away land, not named ‘America!'”

  24. renaado - Mar 25, 2014 at 7:51 AM

    Damn…….. How I Really Really Really wish MLB would play Baseball in the Philippines :-(.. I Really Love Baseball but alas.. Our Government Failed to understand on how Truly Beautiful this game is. MABUHAY KA BASEBALL !! :-(

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