LONDON — Soccer is a religion over here, just like cricket, and the British have been hooked on the NFL since the 1980s. Our national pastime will never be the international pastime, but you’ll be surprised by the amount of interest in baseball, cricket’s younger, distant cousin, in the Old World.
It doesn’t approach the passion in Latin America or Japan, but baseball does have a significant presence on the other side of the Atlantic. In an email to Newsday, Major League Baseball spokesman John Blundell said there are more than 100,000 regular players of organized baseball in Europe. More than 20 of them — from the Czech Republic, France, Russia, Italy, Holland, Germany, Lithuania, Moldova and Spain — are under contract to major-league teams. Twelve networks show big-league games in 35 of Europe’s 51 countries.
For its debut in England, MLB is showcasing its most intense blood feud, and the two-game series between the Yankees and the Red Sox at London’s Olympic Stadium sold out (capacity is 60,000) in one day. Many fans Saturday wore hats and jerseys with Yankee and Red Sox logos. According to Blundell, last year Europe produced approximately 30 percent of MLB’s international consumer products revenue. The Brits not only buy expensive MLB gear but bet on the games.
Stephen Baumohl is the co-founder and director of Redzone.bet, an England-based site that specializes in American sports. Born in London, he has dual citizenship because his father, a doctor, was an American. Baumohl attended Syracuse, and his all-time sports highlight was the Orange’s 2003 NCAA basketball title. He grew up following baseball, whose statistics fascinated him. His favorite book is Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball,” the story of how Oakland A’s executive Billy Beane used sabermetrics to gain a competitive advantage. Baumohl works with numbers to try to find an edge for wagering purposes.
“NFL betting is huge. It’s in a league of its own,” Baumohl told Newsday. “The times of TV games are perfect for UK bettors, with the first slate coming on at 6 o’clock on Sundays and the second one at 9.
“Baseball here has more people betting on it than there are fans of the sport. Basketball is just the opposite, more fan interest but not as much betting. Most baseball games start at midnight or later our time, which makes it hard for people to stay up and watch, but the sport certainly has a big following in the betting world.”
MLB is promoting the fan experience, not wagering, to create interest and generate revenue. It’s staging a three-day festival of music, food and live screenings to celebrate the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry. Since Monday it has hosted more than 1,000 kids ages 4 through 15 at Play Ball Park near the stadium. Some might be inspired to join fantasy baseball leagues, which are not nearly as popular in the UK as those for soccer and the NFL.
Angus Hamilton is a longtime consultant for international betting firms. Neil Morrice, his father-in-law, has been covering horse racing since the Eighties. Both Englishmen are world travelers and regulars at the Breeders’ Cup. Hamilton vividly recalls the champion Cardinals’ Game 6 rally in 2011, when twice the Rangers were one strike away from their first ring but blew two-run leads in the ninth and 10th innings. “That was amazing,” Hamilton said. “You’ll never beat that, the way the Cardinals kept coming back.”
Morrice gambles on just about anything. In 1998, he got 1,000-1 odds on a 10-pound wager that 8-year-old Judd Trump would win the world championship of snooker, a form of pool, before turning 30. Last month, at 29, Trump did, and Morrice pocketed roughly $12,750. Morrice doesn’t bet baseball, though. He just likes its relaxed vibe.
“I love the World Series,” he said. “When we get to the Breeders’ Cup, the Series is always on. There’s nothing I like more than sitting in a bar and watching it.”
MLB would like to create thousands more like him in Britain. This weekend might be a start. Or maybe not.
Hamilton is skeptical about how much these Red Sox-Yankees games will do for baseball in the United Kingdom.
“I wouldn’t read too much into them being sellouts,” Hamilton said. “That’s mainly because this is a special event. They’re the two most famous teams in baseball, it’s a tremendous rivalry, and there are a lot of American expats around London.”
Baumohl agreed. “From what I hear, there’s a lot of excitement about these games,” he said, “but I don’t know what that translates to.”