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Is Africa the MLB's final frontier in quest for baseball fans, talent?

by Staff write
23 Mar 2021 at 16:45hrs | Views
If you're a Major League Baseball (MLB) fan or baseball player in Africa, you're among a passionate few. Baseball doesn't enjoy the same popularity here as other team sports such as soccer, rugby, or cricket. Even basketball, another decidedly American sport, captures more attention.

In the US, however, baseball is so popular that the game has long been called "America's Pastime." MLB is the highest tier of baseball and one of the nation's four major professional sports.

Over the past decade, MLB has relied heavily on technology to drive fan engagement. Interactive offerings such as Daily Fantasy Baseball and online sportsbooks with MLB betting draw new fans into the game.

MLB also looks outside the US to court international fans and players. In many regards, Africa is the continent with the most growth potential for the league.

While MLB is diverse, greater African representation is needed

Players coming from outside the US are making an indelible mark on baseball. There were 291 foreign-born players in MLB on 2020's opening-day rosters. An astounding 27 percent of big leaguers hail from Latin America. Asia, particularly Japan and Korea, have supplied talent for decades. European countries are increasingly making a mark on the league.

Africa, however, lags behind much of the world when it comes to interest and participation.

New agreement with ESPN deepens coverage in Africa
Giving fans access to view games is the first step any professional league takes to imprint in a new region.

In early 2020, MLB made such a commitment in Africa by teaming with ESPN in a two-year deal to bring telecasts to the continent. The partnership expands coverage in sub-Saharan Africa while bringing MLB games to 96 countries throughout Africa and Europe.

Specific broadcasting rights vary by market. ESPN shows up to 10 live MLB contests per week including special events such as the London Series, All-Star Game, and Home Run Derby. African fans can also view games and content via the ESPN Player online subscription service.

Ghana as a test case for baseball in Africa

The popularity of baseball varies wildly by nation across the continent. Ghana, however, is one place where America's Pastime has found success thanks to a group of US ex-patriots introducing the game during the 1980s.

Fan interest gradually turned into player development. By the mid-2000s, Ghana boasted several hundred active players competing in baseball. Soccer fields transformed into baseball diamonds as players pulled together whatever makeshift equipment they could find.

MLB took notice. The league twice sent official delegations to Ghana to cultivate interest and examine player development in the country. Among MLB's officials to visit the country is former player Dave Winfield, a 12-time All-Star, World Series champion, and Hall-of-Famer. Winfield is optimistic about the game's future in Ghana and increased relationships between MLB and Africa.

Ngoepe becomes first African to crack MLB

One of the proudest moments for African fans occurred in the early morning hours of 27 April 2017 as Gift Ngoepe became the first continental native to appear in an MLB game. Ngoepe's Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Chicago Cubs in a 6-5 contest.

The game also saw the 27-year-old second baseman record his first major league hit—a fourth-inning single off of John Lester, the Cubs All-Star lefty.

Ngoepe's MLB debut coincided with Freedom Day in his native South Africa. He appeared in 28 games for the Pirates in 2017 and 13 games in 2018 for the Toronto Blue Jays.

In 2019, Tayler Scott of the Seattle Mariners followed in Ngoepe's footsteps by becoming the first African-born pitcher to take an MLB mound. The Johannesburg native currently pitches for Hiroshima Toyo Corp of Japan's National Professional Baseball (NPB) league.

MLB has made significant inroads with African fans and players in recent years. Still, much work remains to make baseball as prominent across the continent as it is in Latin America and Asia. That success depends on fans gaining access to MLB content, countries like Ghana fostering the game, and MLB drafting Africa's top talent into the league.

Source - Byo24News