When you’re an American working in Australia, things seem backwards. Summer is winter… coffee is white… sharks actually attack… and baseball is far from the national pastime. In America, baseball is in our blood, whether we like it or not. In Australia, the bats are 4 inches wide and look more like our sorority paddles. But baseball WILL be big in Australia one day, thanks in large part to the Australian Baseball League, where I spent my summer/winter as an intern at the league office in Sydney.
The ABL is majority-owned by Major League Baseball (MLB) and is gearing up for its 3rd season after being revived in 2010. There are no celebrity billionaires buying franchises or players signing 9-figure contracts because the ABL is a single-entity, meaning it owns and controls each of its 6 teams. A comparison to Major League Soccer (MLS) might be more appropriate, where the teams’ players are paid by the league and the General Managers’ job is to sell tickets, corporate hospitality, and sponsorship. The project I worked on this summer/winter dealt with the relationship between the ABL and its clubs. The ABL wanted to know whether allowing a 3rd party to operate a club, as is somewhat similarly done in MLS, would be desirable for them and if so, under what conditions should it be allowed. Like many start-ups, managing growth in an efficient and sustainable manner is the key for the ABL. After analyzing the implications of allowing a 3rd party to operate an ABL club, I outlined the basic rules a potential operator must follow. It was a great chance to pick apart the industry and interview executives from some of the most interesting leagues in Australia and around the world. Plus, it was a good excuse to watch some Aussie sports… I mean do some homework.
I was lucky to be at the ABL during such a critical time in their history. The league made some great strides just in the few months I was there. They also faced some fascinating and potentially game-changing decisions: Can they afford to invest in a national television deal to grow their fan base, even though cash is tight and the details aren’t perfect? Can they afford NOT to? Should they focus on playing in facilities designed for baseball located outside the downtown (“CBD”) areas to save on rent and control all revenue streams or should they share larger, more expensive multi-purpose venues located closer to downtown? How do you convert an Aussie that is interested in baseball into an Aussie who is PASSIONATE about baseball?
Another question consistently asked around the office is: How can the ABL differentiate itself in an industry and in a country with so much competition? Between Aussie Rules football, cricket, rugby union, rugby league (see photo), basketball, netball, soccer, etc., it’s hard to have your voice heard in Australian sport. But the ABL has taken a strategic approach to this question, one that may sound familiar to fans of the Round Rock Express and other Minor League Baseball teams in the USA: cater to families. By providing affordable ticket prices, myriad promotions and activities, and advocating responsible alcohol consumption, the family-friendly ABL has positioned itself differently in the Australian sport landscape. The number of Aussie kids playing baseball, softball, and t-ball is growing… the number of Aussies playing in MLB and other top leagues worldwide is growing… and the ABL has combined forces with the Australian Baseball Federation to take advantage of these trends and push baseball up the crowded list of the most popular Australian sports. And thanks to the ABL and MLBAM you Americans will be able to follow the ABL through the league website. Starting in November, the Sydney Blue Sox, Canberra Cavalry, Melbourne Aces, Adelaide Bite, Brisbane Bandits, and the back-to-back ABL Champion Perth Heat will cure you from your winter baseball withdrawal. And yes, they’ll ship some gear to Texas.
I have so many good things to say about Australia and my time working with the ABL crew. While the players are the ones who get to wear the slick new uniforms, the experienced team of executives and scrappy wolfpack of interns are working just as hard to make sure the ABL is successful and remains the major league in Australia for the next 100+ years. Cheers to you, mates!