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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Why A Former MLB Star Sees Baseball’s Future in the Middle East, South Asia

  • Baseball United hopes to tap into a region of more than a billion fans of cricket, a sport similar to baseball.
  • Hall of Famer Barry Larkin looks to expand game in India.
Barry Larkin Sees Baseball’s Future in the Middle East, South Asia
Photo courtesy Barry Larkin.

Barry Larkin wasn’t through with baseball after his 2004 retirement. Shortly after ending his stellar 19-year playing career with the Cincinnati Reds, the Hall of Famer began his journey as an international ambassador of the game.

Teaching baseball abroad for the U.S. State Department motivated Larkin to help create a venture to bring the pro game to places dominated by soccer and cricket. 

Launched in late 2022, Baseball United is the first pro baseball league focused on the Middle East and South Asia. It hopes to tap into a potential market of nearly 2 billion people — including more than 1 billion fans of cricket, the sport with the closest resemblance to baseball.

“In our market analysis, there are 53 million active baseball fans in that part of the world,” Larkin said. “So we can have a significant capture rate if we can get some of those people that love ball sports like cricket. We’re talking about masses of people and a game they have shown interest in.”

The league will begin with a weeklong four-team showcase tournament in November at Dubai’s International Cricket Stadium. The league will own all four teams and add more for next season — and the first two teams announced, the Mumbai Cobras and Karachi Monarchs, underline the massive opportunity.

Mumbai’s the largest city in India (about 12.5 million people), while Karachi is the largest in Pakistan (nearly 15 million). Former Reds third baseman Chris Sabo — a three-time All-Star and Larkin’s teammate on the 1990 World Series championship team — will manage the Cobras.

“In November, we’re going to create kind of a carnival atmosphere, like a fan fest,” said Larkin, a 2012 Hall of Fame inductee. 

Larkin hopes for big returns when the teams are made public. At the moment, teams in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball are worth $400 million, while minor-league baseball teams are in the $20 million range. That’s a far cry from American clubs like the Reds, who are valued at $1.19 billion — but it’s a boom time for owning sports franchises, wherever they are. 

“Investing in sports teams is like the new gold [rush],” Larkin said. “Sports franchises either hold their value or increase in value.” 

The Blueprint

Baseball United draws from a pool of 200 players from over 30 countries, some of whom have experience in MLB, NPB, KBO (Korea Baseball Organization), the Dominican Professional Baseball League, and the Mexican League. Sixty-four players will be selected for the four teams, with the remaining players eligible to be drafted in the league’s first season in the fall of 2024. 

Once the regular season begins next year, salaries will range between the lowest winter leagues (about $2,000 per month) to the monthly $18,000 former Major League MVP Albert Pujols reportedly earned in the Dominican Winter League in 2021.

Kash Shaikh, owner of sports marketing firm BSB Sports and the lead investor and shareholder in Baseball United’s ownership group, said the league is not the baseball version of LIV Golf. 

“They’re doing some great things, but, obviously they have a ton of capital that they’re using and leveraging to bring on great current PGA guys,” said Shaikh, who serves as CEO and chairman of the board. “We’re running this as a startup. We’re focused on things that are important to grow a business for the long term.”

In addition, Baseball United won’t compete directly with MLB, though Shaikh won’t shy away from other competitors. 

“We’re trying to compete with every other professional baseball league out there,” said Shaikh. “Nippon and Korea are the No. 2 and No. 3 three leagues in the world. We want to be the No. 1 international league.”

One way is to attract attention through broadcasting rights and social media. Games will stream on BaseballUnited.com, and TV licensing group partnerships and sponsorships will be announced within weeks. 

Another key component will be players’ social media profiles. Players like Mike Trout, who leads all baseball players with over 2 million Instagram followers, and cricket’s Virat Kohli (250 million), provide perfect models for Baseball United. 

“The market is massive,” Shaikh said, “and players are going to be able to take advantage of it.”

When it comes to televising games, MLB’s broadcast deal is $4 billion, and the broadcast deal for cricket’s Indian Premier League is $6 billion. Shaikh hopes the synergy between cricket and baseball can generate millions of fans.  

“If we put a great product on the field, the fans have a great experience, and people watch our stream and broadcast, it’ll set us up for a great 2024, where we can negotiate a bigger broadcast deal,” Shaikh said. 

Paying It Forward

Baseball United will also develop youth academies, merchandise, and clothing, along with efforts at global nonprofit outreach.

“There are so many different ways to be involved in the game of baseball, not just as a player,” Larkin said. “We won’t just go in and say, ‘Give us your money.’ We’re going in to help create different opportunities for people in that part of the world. The game’s about the life skills of paying it forward and making it better for other people.”

Larkin and fellow Hall of Famer and New York Yankees legend Mariano Rivera will serve on Baseball United’s Board of Directors. Larkin will also serve as honorary general manager of the Mumbai club. 

Other former major leaguers, including Adrian Beltre, King Felix Hernandez, and current Chicago White Sox shortstop Elvis Andrus have joined as investors. 

“We’ve been well received by players,” Larkin said. “Guys see the value.”

And the value partially resides in the opportunity to be only the second minority-owned sports league after Ice Cube’s BIG3, one not so abundant in MLB. 

“Major League Baseball offers opportunities, but it’s really tough for players,” Larkin said. “We’re players, so they look at us like [just] players, and they don’t allow us to be involved in the front offices. Our league will provide more opportunities.”

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