As one of the two bat-and-ball sports in the world, baseball hopes to convert India’s cricket-crazy millions into fans of the sport. Major League Baseball (MLB), an organisation that has tasted success in China, recently opened its sixth international office, this time, in Delhi. “We know India is different from China, but if we are patient, and invest in the right elements, baseball has a future here,” says Jim Small, senior vice president at Major League Baseball, who is hunting for takers of the American game in a cricket-obsessed nation. Edited excerpts:Q. Can baseball make a mark in a cricket-obsessed country like India?
We know the position that cricket has in Indian culture. I’m not sure that any single sport is as popular in a country as cricket is in India. But judging from our research and experience, we feel there is room for other sports to become popular in Indian culture. And as baseball is one of two bat and ball sports in the world, we think if we are patient and do the right things, we can make baseball fans out of the millions of cricket fans in India.
Early this year we reached out to more than 30,000 boys and girls through our First Pitch programme, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. These kids got to experience the fun and excitement that baseball brings and judging by the reaction, from kids, their teachers and parents, we think baseball has a future in India.Q. Even football is still struggling in terms of popularity. In fact, wrestling is now second biggest in India after cricket…
I think that the ability to throw, catch and hit a ball is transferrable… and we have certainly seen that when Indian kids start to play baseball. That said, it will take time and we need to be patient. But with the right mix of participation programs, elite development, compelling content and exciting live events, we think we can be successful.
For a sport to be popular anywhere, there needs to be context. There needs to be social permission for kids and their parents to come to a sport. That social permission comes when the game is ubiquitous. We think we have a plan to create multiple touchpoints between Indian sports fans and our sport. If we can do that, more kids will play, India will produce better baseball players and the game will become commercially viable.Q. Can a business be made out of the game? Right now, there is no league, club or any investment…Can the China experience be replicated?
We began investing in China in 2008, with a similar strategy of creating more participation. Since we started, the number of baseball players in China has increased from a few hundred thousand to 8.1 million. The government has built more than 200 new baseball facilities. MLB games are shown every day on Chinese television and some of them have ratings higher than NBA games. We know that India is different than China, but the China experience shows us that if we invest in the right things—grassroots programmes and compelling content—we can be successful.
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