In my intro piece, I mentioned that I will be spending some time this winter (American winter, Australian summer) in Australia and would write a bit about the state of the game down under. If the prospect of that idea excited you at all, you are in luck, as that is exactly the topic of this article.
Before getting started, it should be noted that this piece is entitled "early observations" for a reason. I haven’t been here for very long and haven’t seen or heard enough to offer a comprehensive analysis of the state of the sport in the land of the kangaroos, so don’t read this piece as such. Instead, read this piece as an intro to the discussion of baseball in Australia, as told through my experiences and conversations with those who have been experiencing this relation for much longer than myself.
To start, I’ll break a bit of news: baseball is a clear second tier sport here. Walk into a pub or turn on any of the local sports channels and you’ll see rugby, rugby analysis, cricket, tennis, or, basically anything but baseball, basketball, and American football. Sunday afternoon rugby is a huge deal here and the last day of the regular season saw many Aussies sitting on their coach or barstool watching their preferred group of excessively large men run into or get tackled by the opposition for far too many minutes. When rugby isn’t on one of the other sports likely is, but that other sport is not baseball.
While there are many reasons for this, two had stood out above the rest thus far: fans can’t go see Major League games (with the notable exception of the 2014 Opening Series, more on that later), and fans can’t watch games at normal hours. To be clear, none of these issues are the fault of the MLB or any other organization with the goal of promoting the game in Australia, but they illustrate the difficulty in changing a preexisting culture that is rather pleased with their present sports landscape. There isn’t a need for baseball in the same way that there is in the United States and many Latin American countries, as the Aussies have a far more prominent game, cricket, which satisfies any desire for an organized sport involving a bat and ball.
Australian baseball fans wanting to go see a professional game in their home country have two options: waiting for the next Opening Series and the ABL. The Opening Series was extremely successful and many baseball fans here refer to it with at least the same reverence as a common American baseball fan would refer to having the World Series in his or her hometown. This was the first time a real Major League game that counted towards the standings was playing in the country, a giant step that gave the fanbase here something to rally around. However, that series is over now and it is unclear if and when another series is coming. This will be an event that happens once every few years at best, and while it is fantastic when it happens, seeing only two games between predetermined teams that may or may not interest a common fan makes it difficult for the common fan to maintain interest over a long season.
Major League Baseball, certainly aware of this, has supported the Australian Baseball League (ABL). The theory behind the ABL is terrific, as the rosters consist of one or two big name players on the decline who could put butts in seats, prospects currently in MLB organizations, and local talent that people in the area would know. However, despite the quality design, the ABL has yet to take off and attendance has been low. Reasons for this include the quality of play (roughly between the High-A and Double-A levels) and lack of recognition of the players (does Brandon Maurer, one of the best alumni, really excite you?). These are just the basics on the ABL, which does not start until November and is not in the forefront on many folks minds right now, but for more on this league in the meantime be sure to check out Ryan Morrison’s piece at Beyond the Box Score that is linked in the "Must Reads" below.
Fans looking to attend games are left with a few MLB games that count every few years and a six-team league below the Double-A level, but the ability to watch games is not much better. I have already mentioned that baseball isn’t really carried on any of the major sports networks, so fans will have to purchase MLB.tv in order to watch their favorite team. MLB.tv is a terrific investment that has allowed me to stay current down under, but the casual fan probably isn’t going to pay over $100 for access to games that are played in the morning.
There is a 14-hour time difference between New York and Sydney, which means that a 7pm game on the East Coast will be live at 9am the following morning in Sydney. For stateside readers: do you remember how the Opening Series took place at highly inconvenient times? It is like that every single day in Sydney. It is difficult for fans to follow their team when they can’t go to the games and can only watch the games at 9am on the weekends. It takes a lot of dedication for the average Australian to stay current with the league, dedication that is difficult to maintain, let alone acquire.
In summation, following Major League Baseball from down under is extremely difficult and there are numerous hurdles left to climb. MLB has done a great job with the Opening Series and the ABL, but there is a limit to what the league can do. It is highly impractical to bring an actual franchise to Australia, both due to travel and the reversed seasons in the Southern Hemisphere. This means that fans here will have to live with the tease of a few real games every few years (at best), the rough equivalent of a minor league that only plays roughly 40-45 games per season (assuming it can be sustained long-term), and the option to spend over $100 on a service that allows you to watch live games at awkward hours.
It’s not all pessimism from down under, as the game is growing in this country. There are many popular amateur leagues around the country that keep young and old players involved, and the professional scene with the Opening Series and ABL is better than it has ever been. There is progress being made, but it is difficult to change a society that doesn’t think it needs to be changed. The sports landscape is full and satisfying for most sports fans, making it very difficult for a new sport, especially one that is quite similar to an already prominent sport in cricket, to continue to rise to prominence.
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Dan Weigel, who was recently disappointed that no one in Sydney Harbor commented on his Bartolo Colon shirsey, is an author of Minor League Ball and a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. Follow him on twitter at @DanWiggles38