GUEST ARTICLE: Digital Sport UK and Dan French discuss the future of MLB in the UK

30th July 2017 by Dan French

Major League Baseball is gearing up for a charm offensive on the UK. The league has launched the MLB Battlegrounds campaign in order to woo the British audience and establish a foothold in a country where the sport has often been seen as little other than an American curiosity.

So far, events like a home run challenge in London’s Hyde Park and VR installations at markets in the capital city have been bringing the league and its branding to the people. But that’s just the start of the fun. Over the next few years, of course, the aim is to grow the sport, and whilst we’re used to other US sports behemoths taking their wares to these shores, baseball is perhaps starting from a lower ebb than the NFL or NBA, who have already sold out London’s Wembley Stadium and O2 Arena on several occasions. MLB clearly have ambitions to do something similar – though all three of those sports will be hoping to grow much further still.

When it comes to winning the hearts and minds of a new audience, though, the correct strategy over the long term will be key.

Dan French, co-founder, Clifford French, a leading integrated sports and entertainment consultancy said, “As another iconic US sport attempts to cross the Atlantic and engage a new wave of fans, an integrated influencer marketing strategy is paramount to the success of the sport on our shores.”

“As an agency that specialises in developing influencer marketing strategies for sports brands and governing bodies, it’s vital that the MLB identify credible UK athletes and influencers who are ‘light fans’ of the sport, they may only have watched a game in the US on holiday or owned a glove as a kid, the key here is that any partnership is authentic.”

Authenticity is what most important. After all, people don’t fall in love with marketing campaigns, but they can fall in love with sport. And anyone in the UK predisposed to follow baseball will do so if they’re given the right environment. For MLB, their next steps are to create a podcast, enlist bloggers, and create a regular chat show around the league and hosted online. The idea is to create an environment rather than a glitzy marketing gimmick designed to plonk the league in front of the public and hope they lap it up.

French seems to concur. “If we were developing the strategy for the MLB, we would recruit influencer partners – who should be media publishers as well as athletes and social media content creators – via a mixture of commercial and contra methods to engage a variety of audiences from millennials to parents,” he said. Exclusive content aimed at engaging people on every level in the hopes of turning curiosity into commitment.

“I’d be looking to build a network of influencer partners that included cricketers and goalkeepers for their obvious links to the sport, music artists, YouTube fitness influencers, Instagram content creators and comedic Facebook content creators.”

Essentially, this is something of an experiment. Whilst influencer marketing campaigns and sponsored content are nothing new, attempting to grow support for something as emotionally driven as sport using only a network of specially chosen individuals is a new concept. The proof of success isn’t whether a baseball game can fill a stadium in London or create new fan groups in Birmingham, it’s whether in ten years’ time the sport has gained traction as a TV event and a recreational pastime for children across the UK. Put differently, MLB isn’t asking the British public to buy a product and forget about it, they’re asking it to fall head over heels in love.

That means creating fertile ground for a true British baseballing culture to grow. The problem is, that culture may be incredibly different from what already exists in the US, and such differences can create divisions: the way British football fans might look on North America’s MLS, for example, would be very different to how they would view fans of Serie A or La Liga. US fans, who have generally come later to the game, have their own way of looking at it – it’s no more or less valid, but it can’t be forgotten. Certainly not when you’re creating a marketing campaign designed to emphasise authenticity.

“Our experience is that most governing bodies create incredible own channel content for their core fans but the challenge for them is how they reach the casual fan who, by definition, is less likely to follow or subscribe to their channels let alone understand or engage with content that is primarily focused at a more devoted, knowledgeable audience. This is where influencer channels come in,” says French.

The idea, then, is to educate new potential fans in order to initiate them into the culture of the sport, rather than simply get them to watch and make their own minds up. In baseball, the reaction speed needed to hit a major league pitch is well under half a second. A ball travelling at 90mph from just over 60 feet away is akin to returning a Roger Federer serve or hitting a fast-bowler’s ball.

“The key to this strategy is to create insightful content opportunities which is why the “Home Run Derby’ VR activation at Hyde Park was an obvious activation to immerse consumers into what it’s like to face a pitch at speeds of 80-95 mph.”

That probably shows just how big a job it really is to bring a sport to a new country. As the UK immerses itself in the traditional two weeks of Wimbledon, the average fan may be struck by just how difficult it would be even to come close to returning a serve by a tournament favourite. How many know just how difficult it must be, then, to make contact with a ball travelling almost as fast with a wooden stick much less than half the width?

It’s up to the MLB’s marketing strategists to tell them.

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