Scope of Baseball and MLB’s growing popularity in India |

Scope of Baseball and MLB’s growing popularity in India

Scope of Baseball

Outside of the US there are surprisingly few nations who include baseball as one of their major sports. The World Series is one of the biggest draws on the sporting calendar in the US but outside of North America it fails to attract nearly as many eyes. MLB odds have the Atlanta Braves as favorites to win the series this year. The Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Cuba all have pro-baseball leagues and the sports is relatively popular in parts of Asia, but no league has taken off like the MLB and no nation has taken on the sport like the US.

There has been a marked improvement in the MLB’s reach however and the league clearly understand that the way to increase the popularity of the sport is by getting more eyes on it. The league now has TV deals in nearly every continent and that can only be a good thing. One market that they are now trying to break is India. India has long been a tough nut to crack for any sport that isn’t cricket but with the increase of grassroots development programs baseball has started to gain some traction.

The first major boost in popularity that baseball received in India was after the Million Dollar Arm competition in 2008. Set up by LA based sports agent J.B Bernstein, the pitching contest looked to find India’s first ever baseball pitcher. Due to the popularity of cricket, there was no doubt that there were plenty of great arms but it came down to just two— Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh. After being plucked from obscurity, the two would go on to sign deals with the Pittsburgh Pirates, becoming the first ever Indian-born players in the league. The story was so inspiring that in 2014, it was developed into a movie by Disney, starring Jon Hamm, Alan Arkin and Aasif Mandvi. Bernstein spoke of why he began to search for a pitcher in the South Asian nation while promoting the film, saying that he sees former Chinese basketball star Yao Ming’s involvement in the NBA as the perfect blueprint to increasing the popularity of a sport in a particular country.

In 2019, MLB India setup their first grassroots program ‘First Pitch’. With this initiative, the league is seeking to motivate elementary and middle school aged students to get into the sport with the guidance of their international coaches. They operate in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore with six coaches, three city managers and three city leaders.

This was huge for the league and became a success very quickly, leading to the MLB Cup in India in 2021. The first iteration of the tournament, sponsored by the league itself, was made for children between the ages of 9 and 11 and saw 12 teams take place. Fast forward one year and that number grew to an incredible 160 teams. The games were held across eight venues in the country, mainly cricket stadiums. It was a major success and has even led to MLB spokesperson Ryo Takahashi hinting that India could have their very own professional baseball league in the near future.

The role the media have and will continue to play in the growth of the sport is vital too. In 2020, the MLB signed a five-year contract with FanCode, and Indian multi-sport aggregator platform by Dream Sports. They became the first ever Indian platform to live stream the sport, allowing fans to watch live games, match highlights, fantasy research and tips, schedules, scores, news features, and more.

There are however some challenges to future success. To begin with, the infrastructure is simply not there to support participation on a wider scale. There is just one ballpark in the country, built by social entrepreneur and baseball enthusiast Raunaq Sahni in 2017. This means that at least for the time being, cricket stadiums/grounds will have to become makeshift ballparks, which brings us to the next challenge. Cricket is the most popular sport in India and of course is in direct competition with baseball. They have the most popular league in the world with the IPL and a majority of their 1.1 billion population follow the sport. This would mean that any professional league would need to take place during the offseason and even then it is a tough task to encourage cricket fans to turn their attention away. However, the crossover between the two sports can also be seen as a positive in some lights and may mean, like in the case of the Million Dollar Arm, they are even better prepared than most to being playing the sport.

The future looks bright for the sport of baseball and the MLB in India. They have made considerable progress in a relatively short amount of time in increasing its popularity in the nation and all signs point towards it becoming even stronger year-on-year.

Photo by Josh Hemsley on Unsplash (Free for commercial use)

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