Major League Baseball is the biggest professional baseball league in the world and the oldest of the major-four sports leagues in North America. There are a total of 30 teams playing in the league and is generally considered as the second most popular sports organization in North America, behind the National Football League. The league includes world famous franchises like the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox.
The League’s success is not only embodied in the competition, but also in the branding and the lifestyle. The game, in fact, is only considered a major sport in US, Canada, Japan and Taiwan; however, MLB’s lifestyle and apparel products can be seen anywhere in the world. In this case, we are discussing the situation in the world’s most populated country: China. Don’t be surprised if you see a young man walking down the street of a tier 3 city wearing a Red Sox cap but barely able to name a player on their roster.
Where did it begin…
In 2003, the MLB finalized a partnership with the China National Baseball team to help the sport grow in China. In 2007, MLB established their official office in Beijing, making their presence in China official. One year later, the MLB made its move to host an overseas game in Beijing with the Los Angeles Dodgers vs San Diego Padres, dramatically increasing the sport’s and each team’s fan base.
Moreover, ever since 2007 major league baseball stars have been coming to China. Unlike when other famous athletes visit, MLB stars typically visit local primary schools. This is a strategic effort to bring the game’s passion to younger generations, focusing on grassroots efforts. The latest star was Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Jeremy Guthrie who visited in 2013.
Most importantly, the MLB made a smart move by partnering up with Shanghai Aidong in 2007, which became the official sales agency in China for official MLB products. Following this, MLB became increasingly known in China as an apparel brand rather than a sports organization, a phenomenon that was unique to China. They quickly opened 100+ retail stores in 26 Tier 1 and 2 cities. Additionally, the MLB was one of the early sports organisations to have an official presence on T-Mall and Jingdong. The MLB and Shanghai Aidong’s focus on presenting MLB as a fashion brand, rather than a sports brand, saw its apparel become extremely popular in China, especially amongst the younger generation.
LeTV purchased the broadcast rights for the MLB, however, this is predominantly for the playoffs and finals, missing out on a lot of the regular season action. Growing their presence on IPTV would be a huge step to reaching out to new audiences.
Develop online presence
MLB is currently online on Weibo and WeChat, China’s two biggest social platforms, but has very low engagement and are not actively connecting with their fan base. There is still massive potential for the MLB to grow online in order for the game itself to grow in China.
Xu Guiyuan recently made history becoming the first player from MLB’s China development centres to sign a deal with a Major League club. The MLB has been very active in their grassroots initiatives in China, hoping to develop Chinese talent from their three development centers. Depending on Xu Guiyuan and future star’s development, they could play a crucial role in shaping the future of the sport in China.