Great news: Aussie baseball is good for business

They came, they played, they conquered. The Los Angeles Dodgers arrived in Sydney last week, played Team Australia in an exhibition game, and the Arizona Diamondbacks in two Major League Baseball (MLB) matches, and won all three.
Okay, non-sports fans, I’ve already previewed the opening series of the MLB season (my previous post on “Dem Bums” are coming to town, but it turned out to be a significant event in Australia, and this is not all about sport, so I decided to do a follow-up.
I had my doubts about how the game would be received Down Under, as the Australian Baseball League (ABL) has struggled a bit to gain the recognition it deserves. But if the enthusiasm for the two American professional teams spreads to the ABL, it’s likely to be brighter days for the sport in Australia.
Nearly 80 thousand people attended the two MLB matches at the Sydney Cricket Ground – dubbed the Sydney Baseball Ground by some fans who put up a sign to that effect at the stadium — with many of them wearing hats and jerseys of their favourite US teams.
I was sitting in the Millers Bullpen Bar section at the SCG on Sunday – next to the “bullpen” where relief pitchers warm up before being called to the mound to replace a failing or tiring teammate – and wrote down the team names worn proudly by fans. Aside from the Dodgers, there were the Giants, Yankees, Phillies, A’s, White Sox, Red Sox, Mariners, to name just a few, and celebrity t-shirts, Derek Jeter (star shortstop of the Yankees) and Mark McGwire (hitting coach for the Dodgers and former home run leader for the A’s and the Cardinals).
They cheered loudly for the Dodgers, not so much for the Diamondbacks; sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and laughed at the line to “root, root, root for the home team;” drank Miller beer out of plastic cups; and ate a plethora of junk food, including hot dogs, with lots of trimmings, despite the dogs’ lack of quality. Continental franks are still the only hot dogs worth eating in Australia, and they don’t sell them at the SCG!
But, of course, baseball is not all about food. It’s America’s national pastime because it’s a game that, like cricket, can be played in backyards or on the street, and has traditions going back to the 19th Century, which are still part of the culture. Baseball phrases dot the English language: “Down to the last out,” “grand slam,” “a whole new ball game,” “Three strikes and you’re out,” “in the ballpark,” or “ballpark figure,” “cover all the bases,” “play hardball,” and “step up to the plate.” There are many more, including a good double-entendre like “switch-hitter!”
The former US Ambassador to Australia, Jeff Bleich, writing in The Australian last week summed up his love for baseball: “It’s a game about perseverance. The best batters in history – the ones who are in the hall of fame – still failed seven out of 10 times they stood at the plate. Ballplayers never quit … and most of all baseball is about hope. It is a sport where no matter how many runs you are down, as long as you have an at bat left, you can still come back and win.”
I sat next to a nice couple from Sydney at the game, John and Lolita Danieli, and we chatted about baseball over a few beers. John said he got interested in the sport when he spent some time in New York with the family. He said he’d like his son to take up baseball, so these Major League games in Sydney might just do the trick. I think there are a lot of Australians, like the Danielis, who go to the US and come back baseball fans. Like cricket, baseball grows on you, and the more you know about it, the more you like it. Well, that’s my experience anyway. I grew up with the game, and have been a fan of the Philadelphia Phillies for 65 years.
The big crowd also applauded for the 17 Australians who played in the Major Leagues, including David Nilsson, Craig Shipley, and Graeme Lloyd, and were part of a special roll of honour before the game. But what does all this mean for the future of Australian baseball? Will Swanton has been covering baseball for The Australian and has written some very good pieces about the game. Here’s what David Nilsson told Swanton in Monday’s paper after a conversation with Major League Baseball Commissioner, Bud Selig: “He (Selig) said if we don’t follow up on this in Australia, it’s a waste of time. It’s about continuing the momentum, game growth, trying to secure another series down here, better facilities, more kids playing the game, more exposure. That’s what it’s about.”
The coverage of Nine’s digital channel, Gem, would certainly whet the appetite of kids hungry to play the game. Sunday’s game (News Corp photo above) on Gem started with a good voiceover from former cricket captain, Ian Chappell, over a montage of the history of baseball in Australia, going back to the 1850s when it was introduced by Americans digging for gold. It was well produced and edited, with perhaps a few too many shots of kangaroos and “koala bears,” as the commentators on ESPN kept calling them. Chappelli also did the colour for ESPN, and provided a much-needed Australian flavour to the broadcasts. But the US coverage would have certainly inveigled international viewers into the delights of Sydney on a picture perfect day. As Jeff Bleich put it in his piece: “Baseball is good for business … Based on ticket sales throughout Australia, the US, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Asia, the exclusive Sydney engagement between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks has brought baseball fans from across the region and injected millions of dollars into NSW and the Australian economy.” He’s right, judging by the multicultural mix of spectators at the SCG yesterday.
And he’s also right about baseball being good for business. Corporate leaders gathered for lunch in Sydney to hear Commissioner Bud Selig talk about the importance of the MLB matches in helping to internationalise the sport. The head of the Business Council of Australia, Tony Shepherd, told The Australian’s Glenda Korporaal after the lunch that staging the games would “have a remarkable effect” on the business of baseball here, already lifted when MLB reorganised the game through the ABL, a 75 per cent-owned subsidiary ( And MLB has a lot of money: US baseball is an 8.5 billion dollar business!
But there is still a long way to go. Baseball is not a major sport Down Under, and even though I watched the first game on Gem on Saturday night, I found myself switching back and forth between it and the AFL match on the Fox Footy Channel. The contest was between two low-ranked sides, St Kilda and Melbourne, but Australian Rules is still the most exciting sport, by far — though I did see the Sydney Swans coach, John Longmire, going into the SCG with his children yesterday. Hmm, I wonder if his kids will prefer baseball to AFL!
So when Bud Selig says the MLB bandwagon may be back in four years, it will depend on whether Australian baseball continues to grow as a sport. I predicted years ago that basketball would thrive as a sport Down Under when the Sydney Kings joined the National Basketball League in 1988. But it hasn’t quite made it to the top echelon, despite many of its young players being recruited by US colleges and several making it to the National Basketball Association. The Ten Network started broadcasting NBL games this year, which could make a difference. If a major network decided to do the same with the Australian Baseball League, and Gem could be the one, the future of the sport could almost be guaranteed. (Gem’s ratings on Sunday night, with its live coverage of the T20 match between Australian and Pakistan, were only half a percentage point behind Channel Ten!) The community TV station, TVS, began live screenings of Sydney Blue Sox home games last season and all the ABL games are live streamed on the Internet on ABL TV. Laurie Patton was the “starting CEO” at TVS and is now the Chairman of the Marketing Committee of the Blue Sox. He’s also an old friend and we had a beer at the game. He told me: “As a Blue Sox board member and father of a 16-year-old pitcher cum right fielder, I have great hopes for the expansion of the fan base next season based on the success of the MLB outing here.” He also promised to “take me out to a ball game” this year.
In fact, we’ll know that baseball has really made it in Australia when they change the lyrics of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” as the Sydney Swans did with the lyrics of the Notre Dame fight song from “Cheer, Cheer for Old Notre Dame” to “Cheer, Cheer the Red and the White.” No longer will it be: “Let me root, root, root for the home team,” but “Let me cheer, cheer, cheer for the home team …” And Aussie fans won’t be buying “some peanuts and cracker jack,” but plenty of meat pies and VB.

6 thoughts on “Great news: Aussie baseball is good for business

    • They are having their troubles, but I reckon Peter Meakin will help lift news and current affairs, and if they can get John Stephens, programming will improve — it desperately needs to improve! Cheers!

  1. The spectacle, Oh for the spectacle. It was said as they fed the Gladiator to the lions.Think of the money, the money, the appeasement of the rabble.
    And it came to pass that two base ball teams from the mighty USA traveled to Australia, one in a Trojan horse, to a game that was sold to the commoner as the opening match of the season. In fact it was the first match of the season that was not counted as the first game of the season. Very clever. A mere Daedanian would have turned to their Gods and said “it’s a trick.” The Achaens would have danced with glee at the expected spoils of war.
    The injection of millions of dollars into the economy.Our “economy” must be very rich considering every “bought in” event outside the ordinary is reported as doing this.Obviously the obese amount of overpriced Americanised food and beverage might have helped. Our medical services do need a stimulus package. If bringing a show to good old Aussie land gives the TV ratings a lift, breaths a bit of fresh air into an oxygen starved body, then bring it on, after all others have done it and it kind of worked.
    One had to laugh when one of the verbose American television presenters suggested that Base Ball is truly a World Sport now that it is being played in Australia. Really.
    A mate asked when it was half time. I suggested it must be soon, as they had only a couple more players to introduce.
    Then they hit the mound. And they came and they went. as did the rabble that came for the spectacle. Hardly a ripple was observed other than by the loyal Australian fraternity and to those who patted themselves on the back for importing the right clay for the game to be played on.
    Good old American soil.
    And the rewards!
    Holmer, economic dominance is nigh.
    What an Odyssey.

    • Thanks for your comment, Slam. Very funny and well written. I take your point, but some of us just like baseball for the sport. Some of the TV commentators were over the top, but I thought Chappelli was very good on Gem. And he likes baseball, too! Cheers, Tom.

  2. The MLB will be back in four years but the ABL is going nowhere. No one cares, no one notices, it is too americanised and there is no room for it in the Australian sporting calendar. It will be gone within a year or two.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dan. I don’t think the ABL believes it will be gone within a year or two. Let’s see what happens in the next season to see if the Dodgers-Diamondback series gives the locals a lift.

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