Hall-of-Famers Rivera, Larkin Bring Pro Baseball to India, Dubai

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Major League Baseball Hall of Famers Mariano Rivera and Barry Larkin and a group of global sports executives announced plans last week to bring professional baseball to the Indian subcontinent and the Arabian Peninsula. The United International Baseball League (UIBL) plans to debut in March 2023 with a four-team showcase event in Dubai. The business’ roadmap has it growing to eight teams and as many as 65 games in 2024.

UIBL leadership believes it can convince cricket fans in the region to become baseball fans, too. If they’re successful, they’ll have a multibillion-dollar business. “All over the world, sports team valuations are very strong,” Kash Shaikh (president and CMO, UIBL) said, pointing to the $945 million Sanjeev Goenka agreed to pay last October for the rights to the expansion Lucknow Super Giants of the now 15-season-old Indian Premier League.

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JWS’ Take: The UIBL is not the baseball version of LIV Golf. “We’re not competing with MLB” for players, Shaikh said. The league will instead draw talent from a pool of American players without professional contracts and from South Asia and the Middle East. MLB’s decisions to cut down on the number of rounds in its draft and to reduce the number of affiliated MiLB clubs has left more quality ball players looking for work than years’ past.

Americans also back the UIBL—at least for now. “Down the road, we do see [the Emiratis] getting involved financially,” Shaikh said. “We are in talks with leadership at the government level. They are looking to embrace baseball as a national sport. We’ve had tremendous interest from people in India, as well.”

Still, it will be difficult for the UIBL to find the success the IPL has experienced as quickly as it has. Cricket had long been the most popular game in the region when the Twenty20 league launched. Baseball remains a niche sport in the area.

But with 2 billion people calling India and Arabia home, 900 million of whom are said to be cricket fans, CEO Kanwal Sra sees “an opportunity to inspire, entertain and convert” some of them into baseball fans during the offseason. Come 2024, the UIBL will play games in India in October and November and in Dubai in January and February. The IPL season begins in March.

Sra, Shaikh and Co. are not the first group to try to turn cricket fans into baseball fans, but they’re convinced previous efforts underwhelmed because of strategy, not the fans’ taste for the game. “There wasn’t a top-down and bottom-up approach,” Sra said. “A big part of our strategy is at the grassroots level.” Rivera and Larkin will be actively involved in helping to educate and train coaches and developing local talent.

The absence of a professional baseball league in the region also hampered previous attempts to grow the game, since kids are more likely to take up a sport and become fans of it if there’s a chance that they can some day play it for money.

Sra believes there are some tailwinds that make professional baseball more viable in that part of the world. India’s GDP growth reached a 22-year high in 2021-22, climbing 8.7%.

The country also has a large—and growing—middle class (nearly 400 million strong, expected to climb 8.5% per year through 2030) and little in the way of sport to spend their money on. Sra says sport represents less than 1% of the GDP in India. “We see tremendous growth in sports assets [on the horizon]. This is just the beginning.”

The UIBL isn’t starting from scratch. There is some infrastructure and a small fan base already in place. India has been supporting amateur baseball since 1983, and MLB opened up an office in the country in 2019.

There’s other local support, too. “We’ve spent the last eight months talking to leadership in Dubai and UAE, and they’re excited,” Sra said. Sport is a “huge part of the UAE growth strategy. They’ve done it with rugby. They’re doing it with cricket. They did it with cycling and jujitsu, and now they’re going to do it with baseball.” The group says it has partnerships in place with a number of federations and organizations in Dubai and will be announcing them in the months ahead.

The UIBL will play its games in converted cricket stadiums, so the league won’t incur the costs of constructing new venues. But starting a professional league and developing talent is costly any way you approach it. The founding group is self-funding the league through February’s tournament. Shaikh said there are plans to start raising the capital needed to take the league through the next five years within 30 to 60 days.

The UIBL business model looks a lot like its North American counterpart, heavy on media rights, sponsorships and ticket sales revenue. Between Dubai’s robust tourist business in February, the 50,000 U.S. expats in the UAE and local interest, Shaikh believes drawing 50,000 people to the showcase is possible.

The league does not have a media partner for the March showcase yet, but Shaikh said it is “talking to numerous [potential] broadcast partners” and anticipates making an announcement on that front “pretty soon.”

Look for the broadcaster to have both international distribution and streaming capabilities. “We want to be broadcasting not only in India [and Pakistan] but across the Middle East,” Shaikh said.

India’s middle class market and expectations of a young audience—the average age of IPL viewers is 34 years old—should make the UIBL attractive to sponsors. “Every brand and business on the planet is trying to capture Gen-Zs and young millennials right now and doing that in a sporting ecosystem is very difficult,” Sra said.

The league said it is also drawing interest from America’s most prominent companies. “Google, Dell, Amazon, everybody has offices in India, and their products are being bought by the Indian consumers,” Sra said.

The IPL modernized the game of cricket, and the UIBL intends to do the same with baseball. “We want to look at how we can export the tradition, pageantry and romance of baseball, but innovate it, evolve it and do things differently to strategically engage a younger audience,” Shaikh said. Those changes will come both in the form of the in-stadium experience as well as between the lines on the field, although Rivera and Larkin will ensure the league does not stray too far from the game’s core values.

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