Major League Baseball ready to make the first pitch in India with grassroots programme

A month ago, Jim Small, MLB (Major League Baseball) senior vice president, had called the game between New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in London as a "lightning bolt" to take the game outside the shores of North America. It was the first official game in this part of the World and drew crowds of 59,000-plus.

“We can spend three or four years and learn the market, and at the end of that period decide if we think we can go with a more aggressive strategy to grow our business there,” Small had told Baseball America.

 Major League Baseball ready to make the first pitch in India with grassroots programme

MLB senior vice president Jim Small (L) with India on Track CEO Vivek Sethi (R) at the launch of MLB First Pitch.

The process towards that goal began on Tuesday with the announcement of MLB's sixth international office in New Delhi. The idea is simple and yet daunting: grow the game in India through fan engagement and baseball development.

Unlike other leagues and sports which have played second fiddle to the popularity of cricket in the country and expressed somewhat disappointment with the one-sport culture, Small reckons this is what makes India a promising market. With a population of over a billion people, the technical similarity of throwing, hitting and catching brings the two sports together.

“There are very few sports played above the waist,” Small had said. “And when we go and see the people that we’re supporting in baseball there, we see tremendous athletes who can throw and catch and hit. They may not have played a lot of baseball. They may have used the wrong foot to touch the base when they turn a double play, but they have the ability to throw a laser beam to first base. And that’s a really attractive thing.”

To help MLB build a base in the country, they've partnered with India on Track (IOT) for conducting workshops across 300 schools in New Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore in the first phase followed by academies as part of the second phase. The grassroots programme called MLB First Pitch has already begun in Mexico and China and the foundation has been laid in India as well.

For the league, the big challenge from the get-go is in explaining the sport, the nuances of it and to develop infrastructure beyond the usage of already available cricket and football grounds in school.

"The challenge is that we have to introduce the sport. If you see NBA, even if ten years ago the brand was new to the country, people knew what basketball was. So the first six months is just going to schools, interacting with kids, get the fun element and once you've identified the good schools, we move on to centres which work throughout the year with two to three coaches," explained Vivek Sethia, CEO of IOT.

"Another part of the strategy is around engaging digitally, explaining rules and leveraging some of the influencers, leveraging cricket influencers and finding a common aspect between baseball and cricket so people can understand the sport. There is going to be a big marketing push around that which is part of the overall strategy."

"The biggest challenge is that the sport is fairly unknown and then it is not even broadcast. One of the key tasks is to find the right partner which can start showing some games. It is easier to create a digital plan to push that out for knowledge. If one is drawn to the sport and you can't follow it because there's no broadcast, then all your investment goes for a toss," he went on to explain the challenges that they are expecting and looking to find a solution for.

Sethia elaborated that they've already begun the activity on the ground by conducting workshops in 25 of 300 schools. He stated that the response has been exceptional with two-three times the minimum enrollment needed (40-50 students).

"The investment for phase two is already planned. I mean if we had gotten zero response, then we would start questioning phase two. We've already begun work with workshops in 25 of 300 schools so we will cross that threshold. If we went to a school and there were only five kids willing to play, we would have questioned our strategy. We're getting two-three times the minimum criteria of 40-50 students from a school. So the question is when to start phase two rather than whether to start phase two."

Cricketer Mohammed Kaif was the guest at the launch of MLB's office in New Delhi.

Cricketer Mohammed Kaif was the guest at the launch of MLB's office in New Delhi.

The process will see ten coaches conducting workshops across the schools in the country with a technical director overseeing everything. "For phase two, every centre will be monitored by a foreign coach. Based on where we end up, we will get more coaches when that programme starts. For the workshops we have a coach who is training the kids right now. He will be stationed full time in India and we have a set of nine coaches who are in each of the three cities. They have undergone rigorous training with the coach and with global tournament director," he said on the important aspect of training the kids.

Taking inspiration from the country's ability to unearth talent from small pockets, such as Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel who were selected by scouts during reality TV show Million Dollar Arm, MLB is not looking at just the big cities for talent and stars of the future.

"From the schools we're looking at some infrastructure, 40-50 students who are interested and a decent neighbourhood. I don't mean financially but somewhere kids can come and participate. So this is not a very commercial project. Other academies have restriction in terms of location because kids have to pay. So we're looking for schools where kids are willing to participate even if it is in remote towns. If you think about it, it sounds very gimmicky to compare to cricket because it seems you're trying to leverage their popularity. But that's not the case here. There are very few countries which have the same motion as baseball does. If you don't play cricket, there is no other sport where you have a throwing motion and batting motion. So, if you don't succeed in cricket, you have another sport waiting," he concluded.

It was also announced that one MLB game will be broadcast on Facebook each week till the end of the regular season.

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2019 20:56:05 IST