Go Down Under, Young Man! When the Diamondbacks open the 2014 season in Australia against the Dodgers, they will be the home team — and it could be to the club’s great benefit if its claim to the emerging baseball market lasted a lot longer than that. As a source of talent, Australia might not be on par with Japan, Korea or Taiwan, but it may be someday, and the marketing benefits of being “Australia’s Team” could be extraordinary.
Before I get to some recommendations, I think some background would be helpful. If baseball has taken hold in Australia, it’s been a difficult, intermittent road. According to the Sydney Blue Sox, baseball’s roots in Australia date back to 1857. The first “national” tournament was in 1910, with Australian states competing against one another. In 1934, cricket-and-baseball star Norrie Claxton donated a shield to be awarded to winners of the tournament, and since that time, it has been awarded to the winning team of whatever was the dominant league or tournament. A pro league that started in 1989 folded in 1999, in part, supposedly, because player salaries outpaced revenue. But in 2009, a new Australian Baseball League was formed, with MLB holding a 75% stake (the rest is owned by the Australian Baseball Federation).
MLB is definitely trying to make baseball happen in Australia. In addition to running the ABL (all player salaries are paid by the league), MLB started a “Major League Baseball Australian Academy Program” in 2001 to help train junior players in the sport. Again according to the Blue Sox, over 300 Australians have played professional baseball of some kind in the U.S., and of the 75 of those players who are currently active, 61 have spent some time with the MLBAAP. That doesn’t mean the Academy is working, necessarily — playing with an affiliated minor league time in the U.S. could just be a form of tryout for the Academy’s best players. Still, those numbers appear to make the Australian pipeline of baseball talent at least as promising as some Latin American or Asian countries.
In the few years of its existence, the new ABL has played only 40-45 games per team, with most coming on weekends, sort of like a college schedule. ABL seasons are also about as long as a college season, with about twelve weeks of games that stretch from November to late January or early February. About 70% of ABL players are from Australia, with other players from all over the world also included — in its current format, the ABL All-Star Game pits the best of the “world” players against the best of the Australians in the league. Since the ABL season does not overlap with MLB commitments (largely by design, it seems), some players in MLB organizations can (and have) treated the ABL as a winter ball option. Not many, though: Dan Szymborski confirmed yesterday that there haven’t been enough players to play in both the ABL and MLB-affiliated leagues to derive “Major League Equivalent” statistics from ABL statistics. (By the way, if you don’t follow Dan on Twitter, you should; as a great writer and master of an important projection system, he’s a font of great information.)
Recruit Australian players
The time may have passed, but at one point, the Seattle Mariners had a stranglehold on Japan. From what I’ve read, it seems that the Yankees have always been Japan fans’ favored MLB team, but Seattle was one of the first to commit to that country. They’ve had eight players from Japan at different times, and after bringing in closer Kazuhiro Sasaki for the 2000 season proved to be a shrewd move, Seattle doubled down in bidding for and signing Ichiro Suzuki in what might be the best move ever made by a MLB front office (ok, maybe after the purchase of Babe Ruth). The Mariners publicly estimated that the “Ichiro effect” of extra revenue topped out at over $40 million per season, although I’m not sure how much of that was revenue from Japan. There was probably something to it, though, as Seattle’s commitments to other Japanese players attest.
The Yankees have also benefited from Japanese revenue streams, as I wrote in a recent article for Beyond the Box Score. So can Arizona capitalize on commitments to Australian players the way that Seattle and New York have benefited from having Japanese players? Not yet. The criteria for how profitable it might be to employ a Japanese star are not transferable to Australia, because we don’t need Major League Equivalents to know that no player will go straight from Australian celebrity to the major leagues. Most likely, any Australian baseball players who become stars during our lifetimes will become stars while playing in the U.S.
That doesn’t mean that Australian baseball players can’t make the D-backs more marketable in Australia, though. I expect to see Arizona obtain another lefty reliever before Opening Day, but it would not be the worst thing in the world for recent acquisition Ryan Rowland-Smith to at least be on the roster for the games in Australia (and that may have been the plan). Just after the signing, I wrote:
Rowland-Smith could also be a good move due to the Australian connection. Getting the Australian crowd to root for the D-backs is worth more than nothing. Since it’s just a two-game series, the 25-man is likely to get stacked with relievers, meaning RR-S has a good shot of coming along. Hey — he came a lot cheaper than Grant Balfour would have.
Balfour actually signed yesterday for 2 years, $12M (less than the $15M arrangement with Baltimore that fell through). I don’t really think that was a missed opportunity for Arizona, even at that AAV. This whole piece is about benefits of planting a flag in Australia, but long term, stocking the major league bullpen with veterans is just a very, very bad plan for Arizona, for more than one compelling reason.
In terms of this coming March, Rowland-Smith could give Arizona one more Australian player than the Dodgers, at least. But staking a claim to Australia long term will entail keeping an eye out for Australian players, even if that sometimes means paying a premium.
Build an academy in Australia
All 30 MLB clubs have academies in the Dominican Republic, but this is still a relatively new phenomenon — MLB opened an academy there in 1985, but the first team-specific “modern academy” was started by the Red Sox in 2003. I know the teams spend a fair amount of money in maintaining those facilities, but it can’t be that much; the D-backs academy looks like a motel with some fields attached (see slide 2 here). It looks like the most recent academies can host 50-80 players, and cost $3M-$8M to build.
That’s not chump change, and it’s important to consider that the DR academies are not used only by DR players — instead of having several smaller academies throughout the Caribbean, it seems that most teams send young players from other countries to the DR academies. And the DR academy system does not have the most sterling of reputations (check out this Time article). Now’s not the time to really weigh in, but I think many of the critiques of the signing-to-majors arguments about DR players is unfair — this one at Mother Jones got some well-deserved attention, but comparing academy players to American rookie league players is just wrong (I linked to page 3 for the graph). Putting aside age differences, American players in rookie leagues have probably been cherry-picked more aggressively and accurately from organized play in high school or college.
Maybe the MLB academy started in China in 2007 will be like the 1985 academy in the DR, setting the table for teams to build their own facilities at some point in ten or fifteen years. But the MLB academy in Australia is older than that (2001) — is it time for some teams to make a move there? Why the hell not? There’s something to lose, surely, but if Arizona built an academy of its own in Australia, it would be a demonstration of commitment, and it could also serve as a marketing hub for the team. It might provide a new pipeline of talent, and it could even help Arizona attract and train new talent from countries in Asia. And I don’t think MLB would stand in Arizona’s way.
Buy an ABL team
Right now, the ABL owns all six of its own franchises. That can’t possibly be the long term plan, but the ABL is moving gingerly to avoid missteps that could mean a permanent end to organized baseball in Australia. It sounds like some of the crowds have been less than spectacular, and it may take a lot of time before ABL franchises become profitable businesses. But an ABL franchise need not be profitable for the purchase of an ABL team by the D-backs to be profitable for the club.
The ABL team could help spread the D-backs gospel in Australia, and so as a marketing move, it could really help the organization. But I’m not even referring to that — I’m referring to the team’s possible usefulness as a team-controlled winter league team in an organized league. All 30 MLB organizations have multiple “rookie league” teams, and again, teams’ experience in the DR is enlightening. All 30 MLB clubs have rookie league teams in the Dominican Summer League (in fact, five have two teams). Those teams help organizations sort out their own talent against a relatively stable level of competition.
Remember, Arizona would not have to staff the team with only Australian players. Actually, the D-backs’ Keon Broxton is playing for the Blue Sox right now (and not doing so hot). And when Didi Gregorius was still in the Reds organization, he had a turn as the Canberra Cavalry’s starting shortstop (proof!), even though Gregorius was born in Amsterdam, almost exactly halfway around the world from Canberra.
Buying an ABL team would involve some icky legal issues, but the ABL (and MLB) is clearly making this up as it goes along. Allowing individual teams to buy ABL franchises could be a great way for MLB to grow the sport in Australia, regardless of whether other teams buy franchises. Some day, the ABL may grow to twelve teams or more, but it will never have 30 teams. Sydney and Melbourne may end up with more than one team, but as long term assets, some teams are better than others. I think buying an ABL franchise makes sense for Arizona regardless of whether other teams follow suit. But if Arizona becomes one of several MLB teams with franchises, why not get the pick of the litter?
Maybe Arizona could buy the Sydney Blue Sox, who, unlike the similarly-named Boston and Chicago teams, took the unusual step of personifying an actual sock for their logo (it looks angry). Or maybe it could take over the Alcohol Think Again Perth Heat, if just to spare the team from being named the Alcohol Think Again Perth Heat. It doesn’t really matter.
There are a number of things that Arizona could do to stake a claim in Australia — even just basic marketing efforts. I love that the D-backs sent Paul Goldschmidt and Patrick Corbin down under a few months ago (and I love Kirk Gibson’s potshot at the Dodgers for sending none of their own stars). The club is clearly cognizant of the opportunity here. Still, I wish it would take other bold steps to stake a claim in Australia.
MLB wants to grow its brand in Australia, and it should — to the extent money can be made in Australia televising MLB games or selling merchandise, that benefit goes directly to MLB (and then split 30 ways). The D-backs should want to grow its own brand in Australia, too, and not just for the potential sponsorship or advertising opportunities. Maybe Australians could be persuaded to take trips to Phoenix to see the D-backs — during Australia’s winter months, Arizona could be a tempting destination.
Phoenix may be one of the fastest-growing markets in the U.S., but it’s never going to rival New York or a dozen other baseball markets. It’s time to grow the D-backs brand in Australia, where there are millions of potential fans that could someday share a tradition just as sturdy and almost as old as that shared by fans in Arizona.
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