LONDON >> Taking in the London landmarks, Hal Steinbrenner turned his eyes from statues to more familiar sights.
“I walked through Trafalgar Square yesterday and saw a lot of Yankees hats,” the team owner told the Associated Press. “I don’t think it had anything to do with today.”
Today was launch day for the Major League Baseball’s foray into Europe, with two games between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox set for June 2019 at London’s Olympic Stadium.
The Yankee caps spotted by Steinbrenner as he wandered by Nelson’s Column was a reminder that in so many parts of the world his team is more of a fashion brand than a 27-time champion.
The aim is to change that with regular-season games in London, moving baseball closer to its European fans and a new audience.
“It’s about introducing the sport by bringing the players,” Steinbrenner said, “by bringing the greatest rivalry in baseball here.”
It won’t be a one-off excursion into London for MLB. The intention is to emulate NFL and NBA and send fixtures every year to the British capital.
After the trial run next year — the Red Sox-Yankees will play on June 29 and 30 — MLB is also committed to playing in London in 2020 as part of a long-term strategy to establish a footprint in London.
“We hope this series will be the beginning of a relationship with London that persists and a continuation of increasing exposure for Major League Baseball in Europe,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said Tuesday.
The NFL is so entrenched in London now that Shahid Khan has lodged a bid with the English Football Association to buy Wembley Stadium, where his Jacksonville Jaguars have been playing annually since 2013.
MLB is heading to a stadium that has been a drain on the British taxpayer since it was built for the 2012 Olympics and then reconstructed to accommodate English Premier League club West Ham as a tenant. The running track around the field that makes the venue seem ill-suited for soccer allows MLB to configure it for baseball.
“It’s very important when it’s not the football season we try to generate revenues that will balance the books,” London Mayor Sadiq Khan said.
The stadium will have a capacity of 55,000 for baseball.
England is already a second home to John Henry, the owner of the Red Sox and Liverpool of the Premier League. Talks between Henry and Steinbrenner began more than two years ago about taking the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry across the Atlantic.
“All of us here today look forward to hearing the cry ‘Play Ball’ in London,” Henry said at the MLB launch at a London cinema off Regent Street. Boston will be the home team for both games.
By playing in London in June during the Premier League offseason, baseball is muscling into cricket territory.
“We think there is an affinity with cricket,” Manfred said. “There’s a lot of carry-over of that fan base into baseball.”
After all, the 2014 MLB season began at the Sydney Cricket Ground in front of Australian fans.
“I think particularly they liked the fact that our foul balls get to stay in the stands and hopefully that will be popular here as well,” Manfred said. “Usurping cricket is a real challenge, but we would like to think of it as a complimentary effort. The same sort of fans might be attracted.”
The bane of the British summer, as cricket fans experience too often, is rain wiping out play. And rain would certainly spell trouble for the MLB games in London.
“We will pray we actually get the games in,” Manfred said. “Because of the scheduling, rain will be a difficult for us in the event we get bad weather. … If we lose a game it would have to be made up in the United States.”
Still, Manfred still sees London as a “permanent home” for a franchise one day.
“When you play 162 times in 187 days, travel is an issue,” he said. “The world continues to get smaller. As travel gets better, we hope it’s a possibility.”
The NFL appears no closer to basing a team in Britain despite so much chatter since regular-season games were brought to London in 2007. There have been 18 games at Wembley and three at Twickenham. Three more NFL games are scheduled for this year, including one at the new stadium of Premier League club Tottenham.
The NBA and NHL have also held regular-season games in London, and now MLB is getting in on the act.