Every company looks to expand into untapped and underserved markets for international growth. Sports is no different. The NBA has put a large focus on China, while the NFL is looking to expand the number of games it plays in Europe. The NHL has an eastern European tour almost every year, and the MLS employs multiple international players since soccer is a global sport. MLB has different ways to work itself into the international discussion. There are some markets where baseball is very popular, such as South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. Those markets help expand the game, but those markets can bring back an ROI because they have a sufficient middle class that can spend money on tickets, souvenirs, and team apparel.
As MLB continues to expand into Mexico, Cuba and other Latin American countires, it must do so while maintaining a viewpoint that down the road there will be a return on the league’s investment in distributing and growing the game.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred hit on the need for international expansion while being interviewed by David Carter, Executive Director of USC Sports Business Institute (SBI), at the SBI’s ninth iteration of its Commissioners’ Series event. Said Manfred:
We look at the markets we are targeting internationally and we don’t have a one-size fits all approach. We are very interested in Mexico. We can have sustained international games there because of its proximity and baseball culture. . . . We take China as the opposite end of the scale. We have spent a lot of money on grass-roots programs. After that, we decided we needed a mass content distribution in China. . . . We partnered with Le Sports and they will stream over-the-top 96 regular-season games and the post-season.
The international expansion doesn’t stop there. MLB is looking at Cuba as diplomatic and financial relationships continue to open up there. The game is endemic to the Cuban market, but MLB needs to be careful on how it grows the game there. They must weigh the benefits of raiding the Cuban leagues and keeping some players there to develop. MLB also must figure out the best way to grow interest in the Cuban league, which could be done easily by focusing on Cuban-born stars already in the Major Leagues.
MLB won’t stop there. It has opened its year in Australia and Japan. It still continues to back the World Baseball Classic. League leadership knows that if it wants to continue to grow it must continue to focus on the domestic market, but the prospects for international growth is still strong.
Michael Colangelo is Managing Editor of The Fields of Green and Assistant Director at the USC Sports Business Institute.