London’s calling the Red Sox, but should it?

Andy Hart
June 26, 2019 - 12:00 pm
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The Red Sox will continue to fall in line with all the modern professional sports cool kids this weekend with a two-game series against the Yankees in London.

Major League Baseball and the teams are putting plenty of promotion behind an event that sold out pretty darn quickly and brings one of the great rivalries in all of sports to an unfamiliar audience. It’s a made-for-TV dream for marketers on both sides of the Atlantic.

But when you actually think about such international offerings, are really they worth the trouble for any of the teams from the four major sports in the U.S.?

First we need to do a deeper dive and dig through the weeds to figure out why teams from MLB, the NFL, the NHL or the NBA would want to stage games in Europe, Asia or any of the other global markets that have enticed them over recent years.

Money. Dollars Euros. Pesos. Yen. Renminbi. Cha-ching. $$$$$$.

It’s the simple lure of boatloads of international fan spending in this global economy driven by e-commerce.

Phew. Ok, now that we got that out of the way pretty quickly we can take an unbiased, objective look at the issue.

While there’s no question there are huge fan bases to be had in wealthy cities like London, Beijing or elsewhere, that doesn’t mean the cost of pushing competitive American sports onto those fans is worth the investment, especially via games staged in faraway, less-than-ideal locales.

While Alex Cora and the Red Sox have for the most part played willing ambassadors for the business of baseball leading up to this weekend’s trip east, they’ve also acknowledged the pitfalls and problems of international play. Beyond a series against the rival, first-place squad Boston trails by eight games in the American League East standings, Cora has been rather open about the challenges in travel, schedule and other relative rigors that the trip includes.

While it may not seem to the average working man that the Sox flying from Boston to London to Toronto is a wearing, in the fine-tuned world of professional sports it’s a bit outside the norm for elite athletes who are creatures of habit and routine.

Sure, both teams have to deal with it and it’s only two games in a 162-game marathon, but it’s still less than the ideal of the teams’ normal battles up or down a few hours on I-95.

Though the travel, lodging, facilities and logistical issues are obvious – hell, the Red Sox apparently considered taking public transportation route to the games in London, Mind the Gap! – only those dealing with all the issues really feel the pain.

And while Cora and Yankees manager Aaron Boone are likely to say all the right things before, during and after the trip to London, let’s all remember what Patriots head coach Bill Belichick had to say following his team’s latest international game, a 33-8 route of the Raiders in Mexico City in November of 2017.

“Personally, I wouldn’t be in any big rush to do it again,” Belichick told WEEI after returning to Foxborough. “It’s a long way to go for a game. There’s a lot in terms of all the logistics of it. They are not used to having an NFL team, so you have to go in there and handle a lot of the logistics. It took a lot of manpower, a lot of hours, a lot of energy out of our organization to do that. We are exhausted from the trip.”

Belichick went on to praise his players – who unlike baseball have the benefit of a week between games, though the battles obviously take a much greater physical toll than nine innings of baseball – and their efforts to endure the difficult situation.

“We dealt with it,” he told WEEI, before getting a bit dramatic. “Players did a great job dealing with all the challenges we had to deal with. I think we’re fortunate there was no volcano eruptions or earthquakes, or anything else while we were down there. You have two NFL franchises in an area that I don’t know how stable the geological plates that were below us [were], but nothing happened, so that was good.”

Admittedly Mexico City is a bit different beast than London, where Belichick’s teams have made two successful trips in the last decade. But all the international options are far from the well-worn travel and playing conditions within the traditional MLB schedule.

Maybe the powers that be in sports -- those like the NFL seeking to play a half dozen or more games in Europe each year with the long term hostility of a team or teams playing full-time across the pond down the road – are on to something. Maybe the money to be made, the fan spending and eyeballs to be had are all worth the investment in international games. Maybe the disruption to true “home” fans, competitive balance and teams’ multi-million dollar athletes will pay off.

At this point, it seems doubtful. International play is little more than an intrusive marketing campaign focused far and away more on business than competition.

Just because you can do something and you might even make a little more money doing it, doesn’t mean it should be done. Sometimes, the little bit of juice isn’t really worthy the squeeze.

International play is likely here to stay in all sports. There is too much money to be made. Too many fans to attempt to hook.

But that doesn’t mean these games are worth the investment.

Belichick seems to know it.

After this weekend, Cora might feel the same way, whether he’s willing to admit it or not.

Related: The story of how the Red Sox landed in London