Inside a British Baseball Fan Movement

Craig Calcaterra
NBC Sports

The inaugural London Series will take place next weekend when the New York Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox at London Stadium. For most of our readers, I suspect, the London Series is a diversion on par with the series which have taken place in Mexico and Japan. Interesting? Sure, but likely to be forgotten soon after its conclusion. No more memorable for us than a skeleton roster of a Premier League club coming to the U.S. for an exhibition match against an MLS team over the summer might be for our cousins across the pond.

The same cannot be said for baseball fans in the United Kingdom. And yes, there are baseball fans in the United Kingdom. I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know many of them over the past year and once you get to know some of them you quickly realize that (a) there are more of them than you might imagine; and (b) they are very well-organized. Maybe it’s in their blood. Their great-grandparents had an empire to run once upon a time, you know. You gotta have your stuff together to do that.

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One particular group of UK-based MLB fans I’ve gotten to know is organized under the banner of MLB UK Community (@MLBUKCommunity on Twitter). The group consists of George Martin (@AstrosFansUK), Dave Shaw (@UkPhillies), Jack Brown (@NYYankeesUK) and Hannah Tomlinson (@CleatsAndPinot), who is an Oakland A’s fan. MLBUKCommunity can also be found on Facebook and Instagram. For the past two years, MLB UK Community has been arranging live MLB watch events in London as part of a movement they have tagged #MLBMeetupsUK.

It’s what you’d expect: beer and baseball at a bar, often on Sunday nights when they can watch multiple teams playing day games in the U.S. The movement has been branching out with watch events organized by others in Leeds, Manchester, Bath, Birmingham and Aberdeen. A few months ago Martin outlined his vision for these events here, but the general idea is to incubate and promote these events as a means of fostering baseball fandom and interest across the UK. Their biggest events in MLB UK Community’s history are, not surprisingly, set for next week to coincide with the Yankees and Red Sox, with watch parties taking place on Friday 28th, Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th at a baseball-friendly sports bar called Belushi’s in London, with other meetups simultaneously taking place in Nottingham, Leeds, Worcester and Glasgow.

All of this is pretty exciting for UK baseball fans, but it’s simply fascinating to me. It inspired me to learn more about what it’s like to be a fan of baseball in a country that has no modern baseball heritage whatsoever. I wanted to know how a British baseball fan picks a team to root for. I wanted to know how, if at all, they follow the sport on TV and whether or not MLB has been as accommodating and welcoming to fan groups like theirs as they are to sponsors and business partners in the runup to the London Series.

To that end I sent Martin a series of questions about it all. He graciously answered them, and I learned a heck of a lot. For example:

    • A great many modern British baseball fans trace their interest in the sport to TV broadcasts carried by UK Channel 5 from the late 1990s and through the early 2000s. The so-called “Channel 5 generation” of fans are largely Millennials who happened upon the sport because it was on TV.  It can’t really happen all accidentally like that in the UK anymore since there are no longer any terrestrial broadcasts of games there. This, I would argue, mirrors what is happening in the United States as virtually all games are on cable now and not everyone is willing or able to pay for the cable packages in question. If the unavailability of free broadcasts is hurting fan interest in one place, you know it’s doing it in another;

    • Even if there is no free TV, MLB.tv is available in the UK. And it’s even better there: there are no blackouts in the UK. So, if you’re a Cubs fan in Iowa or a Giants fan in Las Vegas, you have less of an ability to watch your favorite team than a rhubarb farmer in West Yorkshire. That’s gotta make you feel good; 

    • Martin himself is an Astros fan. He picked them because he liked Mike Hampton. Nothing personal to George, but I can’t imagine Mike Hampton inspiring strong feelings in anyone. I suppose the heart wants what it wants; and

    • The Red Sox have the largest fan base by far, among UK fans. I suspect this is because of the common ownership they share with Liverpool F.C. The second biggest fan base: the Blue Jays. Which, hey, OK. Maybe it’s a Commonwealth thing.

    There is much, much more in our full Q&A. Which I invite you to read now:

     

    So how does a British person even become a fan of Major League Baseball? 

    Baseball in Britain remains very much a niche sporting interest as it presently stands. It really doesn’t have a sports media profile at all, per se, yet. This is something we are hoping the London Series will sow the seeds for changing at long last. Many of the existing UK MLB fans were generated by the coverage of baseball in the late 90s-mid 2000s shown by the terrestrial (non-cable) network Channel 5, who broadcast ESPN’s feed from their Sunday night and Wednesday night ballgames. This was, in my view, the genesis for the majority of baseball fans in Britain right now, meaning that the largest demographic represented in the fanbase is that of people in their late 20s-early 30s who, typically, enjoyed falling in love with baseball from their student days, when late-nights were par for the course.

    This is true in terms of my ‘origin story’ in baseball too. In August 1999 I was 14 years old and an avid fan and player of numerous sports, particularly including cricket, so coming across Channel 5’s baseball coverage left me intrigued to know more about this alien bat-and-ball game that was a cousin of the sport I already loved. I had no connection to the USA whatsoever, so I was approaching it with a completely clean slate, learning the sport absolutely from scratch and I knew that in order to do so properly I would need to immerse myself in it, meaning that the only way I could do this whilst retaining an interest would be to choose a team to support and follow.

    In cricket I have always been a bowler, so I was drawn to the pitchers initially and in particular, it was Mike Hampton who caught my eye. As a pitcher who could also swing a bat with no little success I was a fan almost right away, almost mirroring the way an all-rounder in cricket (that’s a two-way player in baseball) could bat and bowl effectively. As mentioned I had no American influence in my life so I was free to choose to support whatever team I liked. My selection criteria consisted purely of – don’t go the bandwagon route to support the Yankees and don’t support a terrible team who would be depressing to follow. Hampton’s Astros ticked all the boxes – a hungry, exciting team who had never won a championship but were good and enjoyable to watch. The 1999 season finished and I had made my choice – but – as luck would have it, Hampton was of course traded to the New York Mets before the 2000 season. I had to choose – do I follow Mike Hampton to the Mets and become a Mets fan, or do I stick with my original choice? I decided I would stick with the Astros and, nearly 20 years later, here I am.

     

    To the extent you are aware, what’s the perception of baseball by the British? What do they think of baseball fans? For my part — and the part of most Americans — I’m imagining a situation not unlike that of the soccer fan here, oh, 20 or 25 years ago. Whereas now it’s not uncommon to find fans of MLS or European football, there was a time not too long ago where your neighborhood’s or your office’s soccer fan was seen as a bit of an oddball

    The overriding attitude towards baseball in Britain amongst those who do not know the sport and are unfamiliar with its appeal veers from nonplussed to actively antipathetic. You still see the tired refrain “it’s rounders” with depressing frequency on social media, however I do feel that the enormously successful invasion here of NFL and, to a smaller extent, NBA, have opened the way for MLB to eventually break down this ignorant viewpoint held. The world is now a smaller place than its ever been and this is absolutely to the benefit of developing baseball support in the UK. I would say British baseball fans are still viewed largely as an oddity here but we at MLB UK Community sense that this is the best opportunity for this to change.

     

    Give me an overview of how your average British baseball fan follows the game. Is MLB.tv available? Are there any regular broadcasts? Do satellite services like Sky carry games there? No matter the case, most games are at night here, so that’d be far too late to follow live for most in the UK. Do people tend to focus on the Wednesday/Thursday/weekend day games there? Do you watch games on delay?

    This really varies from fan-to-fan over here, with the primary cause for this of course being the jarring time difference between Britain and the USA. Fans will typically either live a nocturnal double-life in order to catch games live or, more mercifully, take advantage of the technology available to catch highlights of games beyond midnight the next morning. It’s a mixture of fans putting themselves through a punishing regime of repeated sleep deprivation in the name of the game they love or doing their best to keep up with their team at more friendly hours – neither way is considered more ‘right’ than the other and I think there’s a genuine understanding across the UK MLB fanbase that there is more than one way to skin this proverbial cat, with every method respected. Naturally, it is easier for people to get on board more en masse in the community with day games, especially those on Sundays when many teams are playing at the same time. Personally I put myself through the wringer, I try to watch Astros games until around 3am and get around 3 hours’ sleep on some weeknights before going to work.

    MLB.tv is a wonderful resource and an absolute must-have purchase for fans in the UK. The options for watching games and the ability to watch every single ballgame – for all teams – is incredible. We are lucky enough not to suffer from the absurd blackout rules which plague MLB.tv in American markets (and which I will never understand the point of, as the concept simply does not exist over here) and we are exposed to as much baseball as we like.

    Unfortunately since Channel 5 stopped showing MLB at the back end of the 2000s baseball has had no terrestrial television network coverage, something that has had a dreadful impact in preventing younger fans from getting on board in the way that I did. Part of our goals as a community in alliance with MLB London is hopefully to reach a point where terrestrial television in the UK has at least a weekly magazine show in the manner of that which NFL does on the BBC on Sunday nights. This would have a considerable impact in my opinion, even in the social media age. BT Sport (a cable network) have a short, 15-minute weekly show ‘Caps Off’ which is doing a great job in the time that they have available, hosted with real enthusiasm by Phil Murphy and Mark Donaldson, however its impact will always be limited by the channel it is on, unfortunately. BT Sport ESPN do show MLB ballgames every day during the season – which is fantastic – but its scope and influence is again limited by the platform.

     

    How do you pick a rooting interest? How does someone in the UK become an Astros fan, for example? Are all or most teams represented in your experience? Are there a couple of teams who have an outsized British fan base? If so, why do you suspect that is?

    This is the key question for us at MLB UK Community in terms of trying to get new fans on board – what’s the hook? Why this team and not that team? There’s no right or wrong answer unfortunately as everyone’s ‘origin story’ seems to be different from the last, which shows the diversity of interest among the combined fanbase but, simultaneously, prevents us from having found a magic formula as of yet. Hopefully the London Series and its aftermath with show us the process on a more widespread level and with enough transparency for us to recognise trends of why some teams are more popular than others. In addition to the aforementioned ‘Channel 5 generation’ of baseball fans, many Britons who fall in love with baseball do so as a result of a holiday to the US which they went on at some stage.

    Part of the raison d’etre of my Twitter account @AstrosFansUK is to seek out every single UK Astros fan and join them to the American Houston Astros community. We’re up to 93 known UK Astros fans now (something of which I am very proud) and the most common reason for supporting the club for a number of the fans has been the connections between Houston and Scotland, interestingly, however Astros fans are somewhat scattered across the UK in terms of location. Overall we have UK Twitter accounts for all 30 existing MLB clubs – which is brilliant and a real feather in our cap as a community. The most widely-supported club in Britain is almost certainly the Boston Red Sox, followed – somewhat surprisingly in my opinion – by the Toronto Blue Jays, who have a real presence at events here. I am not entirely certain as to why this is but they are a great group. The New York Yankees are startlingly under-represented when you consider how it is practically unavoidable to walk five minutes in London without seeing a Yankees cap being worn – the brand is everywhere, however the team it would seem is not. The Los Angeles Dodgers have a decent size fanbase here, as do the Chicago Cubs, yet not on the level of the Red Sox or Blue Jays as far as we have seen.

     

    To what extent are American expatriates a part of baseball fandom in Britain? Are they evangelists for the game? Do they join in with British fans or are they off on their own island?

    I’m glad you asked this question – we at MLB UK Community are crying out for more US expatriates to get involved and get on board with our #MLBMeetupsUK movement and events therein. There is a huge American community in Britain, yet we see so few of them at our events and are sure they would love to get involved – where are they? If there is a way that we can reach out to them to get them involved, both right now for the London Series and beyond, we would be enormously keen to engage in this way. We really have not come across any ‘baseball evangelists’ here in the way that I would imagine a British person would be for, say, a developing cricket interest in America (maybe this says more about us Britons!). Perhaps they are off on their own island but it doesn’t appear to be the case – we have been and continue to be enormously open as regards what we do and how we operate plus who we get involved with. The door remains wide open and I hope we will see a flood of expatriates eager to get involved with us in the wake of the London Series.

     

    Tell me about how #MLBMeetupsUK came to be and how a meetup is organized and pulled off. I assume you watch in pubs?  What do the pub owners and customers think of it all?

    This is the jewel in the crown for us at MLB UK Community – #MLBMeetupsUK is a British baseball fan movement and is designed to help cultivate, gather, develop and expand the UK MLB interest by bringing all fans together to watch live baseball together and enjoy baseball talk, food and drink at the same time. It came about following the MLB Battlegrounds Home Run Derby in Hyde Park in London in July 2017, plus the preceding Facebook Live event held by sports presenter Colin Murray – for the first time ever we could see that we were not alone, or at best isolated, in our love of Major League Baseball. Gathered together there were several of us who came up with the brainchild of holding regular baseball meetups, with the view of using these to gather more fans together and raise the profile of the game in British sporting circles. The hashtag was the result of us knocking heads together over what would suit as an online calling card that would be snappy and easy to latch onto. #MLBMeetupsUK really is our pride and joy and we feel extremely passionate about it.

    I wrote a thread on @AstrosFansUK on Twitter detailing my personal vision for this movement, with us at MLB UK Community acting as ‘incubators’, if you will, helping others all over the UK to set up their own live baseball watch events with me designing 90% of the promotional graphic pieces and us promoting them across social media under this hashtag as much as possible. Events are typical held at sports bars, with ours at Belushi’s Dugout in London Bridge – a venue have been nothing short of fantastic for us in the level of support they have provided and for which we are enormously grateful. We sat down with Belushi’s management at the start of both this and last year, scheduling out all our events for the season. What we then do is arrange and discuss our promotional tactics amongst our group.

    Subsequently we embark on advertising our #MLBMeetupsUK event absolutely everywhere possible on social media, typically after I design an array of promo images and videos and we then get down to business of raising awareness of the events as much as we can, with a Facebook and Instagram presence for the group too to bolster our Twitter account @MLBUKCommunity. From what we have seen so far, owners of the venues are happy with it as we bring them business on Sunday nights where they otherwise may have seen business be a little slower, so it really is win-win for all. We want more and more people to join us in attending #MLBMeetupsUK events – all fans are welcome, whether this is your first time or ten thousandth time watching the sport. We are all-inclusive and embrace difference within our community. Our only limitation at our venue is that it is over-18s only but with it being an alcohol vendor this is understandable. We want everyone to reach out to us and get involved!

     

    What sort of turnout have you been getting at the meetups? Has there been an uptick in the runup to the London Series?

    We actually had higher turnouts in 2018, where the first 2 events in London had attendances of 70 and 65, respectively, whereas we have noted a marked drop-off since. I suspect this is due to the frequency of events having worn off the ‘novelty’ of meeting up to watch live baseball, as the absentees have mostly been the more regular attendees, ironically; we get a number of first-time attendees at every event and, without meaning to devalue our regulars at all, this is almost better in a way as there is not a great deal of expansion one can achieve in preaching to the converted, We love to see the new attendees have a great time at our #MLBMeetupsUK events as we recognise word-of-mouth is our lifeblood if we truly wish to develop and expand.

    Personally I was expecting interest in events to be at an all-time high on the eve of the London Series, however this has not proven to be the case. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little alarmed by this trend and we are actively continuing to seek feedback on this if there are things we can improve, however we believe the London Series represents the opportunity of a lifetime as regards energising the UK MLB fanbase to attend events and get involved. Interest in events ahead of the London Series itself has been good though, with the weekend of the games representing the biggest in our history: we have events on Friday 28th, Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th at Belushi’s, whilst there are also #MLBMeetupsUK events taking place in Nottingham, Leeds, Worcester and even up in Glasgow in Scotland. We are going to take the bull by the horns right here, right now.

     

    What do you envision for the future of #MLBMeetupsUK? Flash forward five years and what would you like to see with that and with baseball fandom in the UK in general?

    As detailed in the Twitter thread, I view #MLBMeetupsUK expanding as a movement across the UK. The hope is that the London Series will be a huge success and will start sowing the seeds of baseball interest among your average everyday sports fan in Britain who follows many sports but just didn’t know anything about baseball due to the lack of exposure to it. We hope they will have open minds and, due to the connection to the world offered by social media, be willing to engage with the sport and take baby steps. In doing so, we are looking to widen our presence online to draw these people in. The proliferation of UK MLB dedicated podcasts, blogs, merchandise stores, YouTube channels and more shows to me that, as a community, we will help each other to achieve this. #MLBMeetupsUK is not about individuals, it’s not about me or Dave or Jack or Hannah, it’s about connecting baseball fans in the UK and driving interest onwards and upwards. My view is to get to the point where people are setting up their own #MLBMeetupsUK events regularly all over the country without our involvement to the point where it becomes a self-perpetuating process.

    I’m glad you asked about where I see baseball fandom in the UK in 5 years but I’d like to take that further – I see this as a 10-year plan with the end goal being to get MLB interest in the UK on a level-footing with where NFL interest is now. It took NFL a decade of planning and legwork to get to where they are in the UK and I have a great admiration for what they have achieved despite not being a fan of the sport. They have set the blueprint and it is one we as a baseball community must not ignore; it will require MLB London engaging with the fans to achieve this point and, recently, the signs are looking positive. We’re realistic – no one is aiming to get MLB interest on a par with, say football (soccer) here, as that is completely unfeasible. I would add that we do not see baseball as a competitor to other sports, particularly cricket, in any way whatsoever – these are both superb sports in different ways from one another and I am absolutely convinced that they can co-exist. This is not about making enemies and acting disrespectfully. We are setting truly ambitious but achievable goals for where we want to be. We know we will hit many roadblocks and bumps along the road along the way, however this must not deter us. If you don’t ask you don’t get and we will be asking at every single step of the way, you can bet on that. The 5-year projection I could not tell you as so much depends on how the 2019 and 2020 London Series pan out, however I am set on that 10-year schedule and taking stock of our progress along the way one year at a time.

     

    Let’s talk about the London Series. What was your reaction when it was finally announced that the Series was going down? I know there had been rumors and false starts about it for years.

    Honestly, it was one of shock mixed with joy. It’s a bit of a cliche to say that but I think many of us had become hardened cynics over the years as a result of those continued whispers and false starts, believing the day would never come. The next emotion was the worry that MLB were playing too much catch-up (in comparison with how NFL had approached their UK adventure a decade earlier) and that the series would risk being a disaster to such a degree whereby baseball would not be able to return here for a generation after having missed this opportunity. Most of this has subsided in the main, although I think it’s safe to say there is still a degree of anxiety among the existing UK MLB fanbase to make sure theta everything is ‘alright on the night’, so to speak, as regards the actual series. We’re thrilled though and we really can’t wait for what is going to be the most rewarding and thrilling experience we have ever had as baseball fans here: Major League Baseball on our doorstep – these are the days of our lives! I tell people to drink it in and savour it, because the first time is always the sweetest.

     

    What’s your take on the ticket prices. I’m assuming everyone figured tickets would be expensive, but personally I was shocked at the price points. Did that sour you and people you know on the whole affair?

    The ticket prices were extremely negatively received across almost the entire UK baseball community and a number of fans were sadly alienated by this. The subject has been flogged to death so we’re trying to focus on the positives, however my opinion remains that MLB didn’t quite see the forest for the trees in not identifying that, by making tickets more affordable for families, this series could have been an extraordinary tool to getting youth into baseball and helping develop people actually getting into playing the sport here from grass roots up. This was undoubtedly a missed opportunity, particularly when considering the area of London which the London Stadium is situated.

     

    How about London Stadium? With a couple of exceptions, MLB has moved away from multi-purpose stadiums over the past 25 years, primarily because of the unique configuration of a baseball field and the sorts of poor sight lines and distance American football and Olympic-style coliseums provide when oriented for baseball. Artificial playing surfaces are mostly out now too. Obviously there are no large-scale baseball facilities in London so you have to make do, but is there a sense that there were any better options? Some West Ham fans familiar with the stadium tell me that a lot of the seats are going to be awful. Do you agree? If so, does this bug you?

    Along with the aforementioned issue of the time difference, this is the other big obstacle towards MLB development in these isles as regards it being played – the unique triangular footprint of a ballpark is almost completely incompatible with our various sporting stadia. The best option in my mind would have been The Oval, a major cricket ground in south London, however with the Cricket World Cup presently underway this was never an option, plus I have my doubts as to whether Surrey County Cricket Club (incumbents at the stadium) would ever be open to the idea of baseball being played on its hallowed turf. Lord’s Cricket Ground – the home of cricket – is smaller and would absolutely be off-limits in terms of baseball being played there.

    The London Stadium was an interesting choice and I think we as fans all looked at the decision to host the London Series there a little quizzically, however I do not believe there was a better alternative available in London or, for that matter, the rest of Britain either. Sight lines will certainly be an issue for anyone in the furthest seats from home plate and I think the real proof of how suitable the stadium is for baseball will only be known once the series has taken place and fan feedback from those who attended can be assessed. West Ham fans are largely very unhappy with the London Stadium as a football (soccer) venue so that would appear to indicate baseball would be even less-suited, however I think we need to wait and see what the ballpark version of the stadium is like in the flesh before passing final judgement.

     

    Do you think Major League Baseball, as an organization, has done a good job reaching out to British baseball fans? What’s your general take on how MLB has approached all of this? Are they patronizing? Are they cooperative? Do you think they listen to or care about fan groups such as yours?

    Honestly speaking, MLB have proven a very tough nut to crack in this regard and it took a long time for us to get through to them. There was a notable degree of frustration for some time after the Battlegrounds event that MLB UK (as they were at the time) were almost completely silent on social media. However, as I said earlier – you don’t ask, you don’t get. We proved to them through our persistence (both as a community in general and also our group MLB UK Community) that we mean what we say and are enormously committed to helping them and helping baseball fans here, without any sort of agenda or preferences.

    MLB London recognised that and have been fantastic to us of late, offering us the incredible opportunity not only to attend the Workout Day for the Yankees and Red Sox players at the London Stadium the day before the series, but also to distribute over 200 tickets to the event for UK fans. It was a simply stunning show of faith in us by MLB and we are spectacularly grateful for this. They have not been patronising at all and I would like to think we all appreciate the difficulties they are facing in pitching a ‘new’ sport to the masses whilst trying not to alienate the existing hardcore fanbase in their approach towards this, I believe MLB London are now understanding of the impact that the fan groups have and we will continue to prove to them that we are indeed their foot-soldiers on this journey. If you ask me, the future has never been brighter for the prospects of growing the UK MLB interest and fanbase. It’s dependent on the right moves being made but we truly believe in what we are doing and, with MLB in alliance, everything is achievable over the next 10 years.

     

    If you can’t afford a ticket to the London Series games, what’s the best way to make the best of things of it for the UK baseball fan?

    The best way to enjoy the London Series if you’re not going to the games is undoubtedly to get to a #MLBMeetupsUK event. Whilst as mentioned there are similar events in Nottingham, Leeds, Worcester and Glasgow (details on our Twitter @MLBUKCommunity) we would urge anyone and everyone anywhere near London to join us at Belushi’s Dugout in London Bridge for our biggest events ever.

    We’re kicking things off on Friday 28th June at 7pm onwards for a pre-series social event and a chance to hopefully meet baseball fans from all over the UK, Europe and visiting from the US, culminating with some live baseball at midnight as we have venue until 3am for any hardy souls! Then we’re back in action there again on Saturday 29th June at 2pm onwards with the London Series live, followed by live baseball of games starting in America after the London ballgame finishes. To cap the weekend off we’re repeating the trick again on Sunday 30th June from 12pm onwards for game 2 of the London Series and more live baseball from the US after the game ends. We’re referring to the weekend’s events as part of a #FestivalOfBaseball and we would really recommend to fans to get to as many events as possible, take it all in, not just ours but the whole vibe around London.

    Get at us on Twitter @MLBUKcommunity and we would love to hear from absolutely everyone interesting in coming to our #MLBMeetupsUK events and getting involved with the brilliant UK baseball fan community that is growing by the day.

     

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