MLB opener in Japan shows progress

The baseball season begins Wednesday at 6:10 a.m. ET, but it’s 7:10 p.m. somewhere.

And that locale is again Japan, which hosts the first series of the major league baseball season — this time a two-game set between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics — for the fourth time in the past dozen years. The NFL, NBA and NHL have staged regular-season games in Europe in recent seasons, a trend that likely will continue for the foreseeable future.

As the US pro sports leagues increase their footprint abroad, aspirations of a franchise based outside the continent tend to follow.

“I don’t think it’s a matter of if, but when,” Paul Archey, MLB’s senior vice president of international business operations, told “Thirty percent of the players in baseball are foreign-born. Between the majors and minors, we have players from 44 countries. It’s a global game, and (an overseas) team is not out of the question.”

In the meantime, leagues seem content with exposing their respective brands — and raking in the revenue from ticket sales, merchandise and television rights fees — to new audiences.

The gains abroad include:

• The NHL: Bolstered by the launch at the beginning of the season of country-specific websites in Czech, Finnish, German, Russian, Slovak and Swedish, the league now gets 20 percent of its traffic to from outside North America. The league has in recent months expanded its television offerings abroad, including a five-year, $50 million deal in Europe.

• The NFL: Since shuttering NFL Europe in 2006, the NFL’s international efforts — focused largely in Europe — have been profitable, according to NFL International VP Chris Parsons. The NFL is committed to holding at least one game in London per year through the 2016 season, and viewership in the United Kingdom of all NFL games has risen 91 percent since 2006.

• The NBA: The first major US pro league to hold a regular-season game overseas (Japan, 1990), the NBA, arguably, has gone more global than anyone. Bolstered a decade ago by the entry of Yao Ming and the influx of European players, more than half of the traffic to comes from outside the US. The league has 14 language-specific sites.

• MLB: The two games the Mariners and A’s will play at the Tokyo Dome this week sold out in about eight hours, Archey said. Although baseball is no longer an Olympic sport, MLB has tried to fill the gap with the World Baseball Classic. Pool play for the 2013 WBC will take place in Germany, Panama and Taiwan later this year.

“This is all about expanding their market share,” said Curt Hamakawa, director of the Center for International Sports Business at Western New England University. “They pretty much saturated here with their franchises. For major league baseball, they have a very strong following in Japan and the number of Japanese players has been key to that success. It’s also ingrained into the culture of Japan. There’s no need to educate them about the sport.”

Introducing a foreign sport can be a costly proposition. The NFL first brought its brand of American football to Europe via a preseason game between the Minnesota Vikings and St. Louis Cardinals at Wembley Stadium in 1983. Then came the World League of American Football (WLAF) in the early 1990s, a league that morphed into NFL Europe before it was eventually shuttered after millions were spent on the effort by the NFL.

Parsons said those forays weren’t wasted, as evidenced by recent gains in England.

“Our business is relatively strong,” Parsons said. “We’ve doubled our revenues (internationally) over the last three to four years. I think if we weren’t smart about our media deals globally or smart about building our other businesses, we wouldn’t be in nearly as great of shape as we are in today.”

Unlike the NBA and NHL in Europe or MLB in Japan, the NFL faces one significant challenge: Few people in the UK grew up playing the sport. Parsons, however, says that although he would love for that to change, the NFL has one thing going for it over the opposition.

“When we go overseas, we are it,” Parsons said. “The NFL is unique. If you’re the Premier League and go to Mexico, there’s already a Mexican (soccer) league there. It’s a global sport, and that limits your ability to establish yourself in other countries.”

Parsons estimates that there are 2-1/2 million hardcore NFL fans in England, which has hosted a regular-season game each of the past five years. (The St. Louis Rams have committed to play a game at Wembley Stadium for the next three seasons.) The NFL aims at doubling the number of what it considers avid fans during the next couple years, which would make the league the fifth or sixth most popular sport in the UK, according to Parsons.

But it takes more than a league front office’s desire to play games abroad; ownership and players unions also have to play along.

Owners, rightfully, are reluctant to give up home dates to play outside the country. Teams typically are compensated by the respective leagues for agreeing to games outside North America. Players associations are usually more concerned about the wear and tear such trips can add to an already long season.

“We’ve been in favor of international play (in the regular season) going back to the 1980s,” MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner said. “Perhaps we’ve been more in favor it (than MLB). There are challenges, and we don’t want these games to be a burden. At the same time, we want to expose the game of baseball to as many people as possible.”

Actually having a team based outside the continent is another issue altogether, and travel could be the shortest hurdle. A flight to western Europe is about the same distance for an East Coast team flying to California, but the support that the foreign franchise can foster could be the determining factor.

“You have to have enough of an established base to be successful if a team chooses to move there,” Parsons said.

No leagues are currently talking expansion, so that would mean an existing team would have to win approval to move overseas. That doesn’t seem to be in the offing anytime soon.

“This could take a generation or two,” Hamakawa said. “They leagues will just have to pick the right market. The time will come where the costs and distance won’t be as prohibitive. It’s coming.”