Multi-billion dollar sports league, entertainment and media business, technology company, even a sporting diplomat - Major League Baseball (MLB), says Chris Park, is no longer merely America’s national pastime. It is, he says, a growing international business in “a deeply global game”, one that is taking meaningful strides to embed itself into the lives and cultures of local sports fans across the globe.
As senior vice president of growth, strategy and international at Major League Baseball (MLB), Park oversees the league’s global growth efforts and all aspects of its international business initiatives. His remit covers everything from global events and television to sponsorship, licensing and new market development, while he also serves as president of the World Baseball Classic, the quadrennial international tournament jointly operated by MLB and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA).
Park, who re-joined MLB in February 2015 after a stint with Facebook, has been tasked by commissioner Rob Manfred with localising MLB business activities in key markets outside of the US. This year, he oversaw the opening of MLB’s new office in Mexico City - its first business outpost in Latin America - spearheaded the organisation of the league’s historic exhibition game in Cuba this spring, and helped launch its first pop-up retail installation in London. Beyond that, he has also orchestrated the expansion of the World Baseball Classic whilst helping to negotiate major new media rights partnerships with the likes of LeSports in China, Televisa in Mexico, MBC Sports+ in South Korea, and Dentsu in Japan.
Together, these new strategic investments and partnerships will see MLB International post its highest ever revenue this year, further bolstering the league after a season which culminated in the Chicago Cubs’ historic first championship in 108 years, one of the highest-rated World Series in history, and, more recently, a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that will ensure labour peace in MLB extends to more than a quarter of a century.
Following the conclusion of last month’s World Series, and ahead of the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic in March, SportsPro stole half an hour with Park to discuss the commercial health of baseball worldwide, MLB’s approach to international expansion, its new overseas media partnerships, and much more besides.
Park on…the commercial health of the game
"I think our game has never enjoyed broader exposure and distribution around the world, and under the commissioner’s leadership over the last two years we’ve been grateful to refocus a number of our promotional and commercial efforts to revitalise our brand or, in some cases, launch our brand in the most critical markets, both for the baseball community and MLB’s broader ambition.
"This is a good time, overall. We’re excited about the foundation we’ve been able to build over the last couple of years in particular, but I think our on-field product - as you saw last month during the playoffs - is really compelling. We’re excited to be able to continue to find new ways to showcase it outside of the United States."
Park on…initiating Commissioner Manfred’s “strategic reset”
"Historically, Major League Baseball is - and probably always will be - a deeply global game. I think among the American sports leagues we probably have the highest representation on-field of international players, at least players who are not born in the United States or Canada. So it goes without saying that communities, players and families outside of the United States have always been an important part of the game.
"Commissioner Manfred’s particular interest in this area of both our game and commercial development, though, is to try to be strategic and focus on long-term opportunities that can not only return benefits to our game but also redefine and enrich the core identity of our brand, the identity of our clubs, and ultimately what role we play in culture broadly speaking.
"The crux of our efforts around the world perhaps most recently have been to refocus on thinking of the internationalisation of our game through globalisation. That is to say, go community by community, market by market, opportunity by opportunity, and receive guidance from our partners and fans around the world about how we can be the best possible partner and brand and entertainment source for them and then adapt that to our plans accordingly.
"Major League Baseball has grown, even in the United States, to become so many different things through the years. We are, of course, colloquially the national pastime, but MLB has since grown to not only be a major entertainment and media company, but also a technology company, even in some cases a sports diplomat. So we want to do justice to all the various roles that we can play and take the lead in the communities we’re trying to serve in defining what exactly we will bring."
MLB has grown to not only be a major entertainment and media company, but also a technology company, even in some cases a sports diplomat.
Park on…that market-by-market approach
"Our overall remit in execution is going to look different depending on where we are and who we’re trying to serve, but the strategic aims are going to be the same, which is we want to embed ourselves in the communities that we’re trying to serve, obviously working with the best partners we can find but by making connections that are really authentic with our fans.
"In some cases that will mean we bring our own resources to the table and we bring an experience that looks a lot like, say, fans in Kansas City experience when they interact with our game. But in other cases it will look very different, and we may look more like other global brands or other localised sports and entertainment brands."
Park on…taking MLB content to Chinese audiences
"Our partnership with LeSports in China is a good illustration philosophically of what we’re trying to do. The 2016 season was our first streaming games on the LeSports platform in China. It was effectively the first ever mass media partnership we’ve done for regular season and play-off games. All told, we streamed roughly 130 games from opening day to the end of the World Series. We literally grew a new audience of about 30 million folks or so.
"I think it was important for us to reach a new audience and connect with Chinese fans, but also to do so by the most compelling presentation possible. We’re excited about our partnership with LeSports because we really are building the first generation not only of Chinese fans and the audience but also of Mandarin-language Chinese broadcast and media production. We’ve seen a really vibrant fan community grow, at least with the game audiences that we have there. We’ve been very impressed by the size of the community that we’re able to track there."
Park says MLB's deal with China's LeSports, signed in January, is "a good illustration philosophically of what we’re trying to do" in overseas markets.
Park on…maintaining a local presence
"Conceptually, we think it’s critical - even mission-critical, if I can use an obnoxious piece of lingo - for our business to be local. We believe in having real, in-person relationships not only with our partners but also with our fans. We think it creates an indispensable feedback loop to New York and the rest of the network of MLB stakeholders to be on the ground and to live the experience of our game wherever we may be.
"We’re obviously delighted to have offices outside of the US that are very active and very vocal. This is, for instance, the first year that we launched a business office in Mexico City. It’s not only our first office in Mexico but also our first in Latin America and we’re excited to be able to build on that team in years to come.
"We’re happy with the offices we have. We’d loved to have offices and people literally everywhere around the world; I’m sure that we’ll never be able to do that for reasons that probably apply to every entity out there. But we’re excited about the foundation of the offices we have so far, have built and are planning to build on in the near future."
We continue to find new opportunities to showcase baseball content in really interesting ways across traditional and non-traditional media.
Park on…doing due diligence before entering new markets
"The analysis we do on that, first of all, is ongoing and, second of all, cross disciplinary. It’s harking back to some of the issues we were talking about before. Because both MLB as an enterprise and MLB as a game and a cultural institution now has come to mean so many different things, when we are evaluating markets we are evaluating the fit of current and potential of our activities with the given community or the potential fans and partners we’re trying to serve.
"Obviously, whether we’re thinking about where to open an office or where to prioritise our resources or other attentions, it’s an increasingly difficult decision because, understandably and rightly, we see opportunity everywhere. But in the ultimate judgement we do our best to evaluate what we think is possible across the many hats that MLB can wear, and then we just make our best judgements, we hope, about focusing the league resources in places where we think we can make the biggest and most meaningful impact.
"As we do so across the world, we may have certain prioritised areas or markets which may be priorities for slightly different reasons. But that is broadly speaking the process that we have not only paid a lot of attention to recently as we’ve taken on the remit, but will continue to do so as we evaluate how well we’re doing, how well we’re not doing, and where else we’re going to look to be more aggressive."
Park on…the rise of OTT and MLB’s digital efforts
"I think our focus, regardless of what segment of the business we’re talking about, is to make the most compelling and authentic connections with the fans we have. In that sense, our mission is to make that happen and we’re probably at a point in history where there are great opportunities to do that by way of the exploding universe and landscape of platforms across digital media.
"We continue to find new opportunities to showcase baseball content in really interesting ways across traditional and non-traditional media. That’s just a drop in the bucket for what MLB, broadly speaking, is doing globally. BAM [MLB Advanced Media], of course, is doing amazing things in different parts of the media supply chain, both with baseball and other content. And it’s been that way for a long time. MLB.tv, for instance, has been available globally for quite some time and it’s available to our fans even as we are growing other ways for fans to interact with our game and our broadcast in different languages."
The last edition of the World Baseball Classic, played in 2013, was won by the Dominican Republic.
Park on…driving international interest through the World Baseball Classic
"We’re excited not only because it’s the fourth edition of the tournament of all time and we only get to do this once every four years, but this is the first time in about a year that we’re going to inaugurate two really important markets in to the tournament. For the first time, we’ll be playing pools in Guadalajara, Mexico, and in Seoul, South Korea. These are just new ways to interact with fans in probably two of the most important baseball communities around the world.
"We see a cascading effect in all of the other areas in which we happen to be active, so just by way of example, particularly in western Europe, in London, but also in effectively all of the other places where we have a local presence, we are planning a pretty ambitious wave of both a new content production and a new event that will I think bring our game and our brand to fans around the world, even in some contexts that might seem non-traditional.
"Historically, a lot of our event production has been focused on exhibition games and regular season games. In next year’s World Baseball Classic we’re going to become more active in putting on events that showcase baseball and that may not be in a context of formal series. We’ll more to report as to the specifics of that in the months to come, but we do think, as I mentioned at the beginning, we’re grateful to be at this point in history because the 2016 season provided such a great platform to really build on."
Park on…setting up shop in London
"We’re pleased with what we’re seeing so far. We expect that store to be open through the holidays and we’ll have a better assessment when it’s all said and done. It’s an opportunity for us to not only connect with fans but also to learn a lot. That is the first pop-up retail installation that we’ve done outside of the United States anywhere, so we’re very lucky to be able to launch it in Covent Garden but we have a lot to learn and to observe in the process."
Park on…MLB’s retail business
"Our retail business is great - it’s very healthy. We’ve enjoyed a lot of opportunities and a lot of successes this year. As we are continuing to push the envelope creatively, both with that outlet and a few other examples, we’re seeing really all-time interest in our appeal around the world, including, for instance, in Canada, where we’re seeing a national wave of interest and new allegiance as the Blue Jays have achieved success in the last few seasons."
Park on…standing out from the crowd
"We try to follow the news and follow what both our competitors and other cool entertainment brands are doing around the world. I do think it informs what we think and what we do. In a lot of cases, though, because of what we started with, it doesn't ultimately determine the decisions that we make because our focus, first and foremost, is on both our brand and our fans and communities that we’re trying to serve. In a lot of cases, what we are well-positioned to deliver may be different from those of other brands that superficially look like ours. We think the biggest mistake we could make is lose sight of what makes us unique and in some cases idiosyncratic.
"London is a good example where we have what we believe is a really compelling role in culture, but in certain dimensions that at times may be considered non-traditional for a sports brand or certainly for a sports league. A big part of this year for us was to re-launch our London office and we spent a good bit of time thinking hard, researching hard about what our specific path forward will be there. I think you’re going to start to see some of the signature elements of that in the months and the years to come."
Park was speaking to SportsPro Americas editor Michael Long.