Those who live in the Northern Hemisphere have entered into a prolonged period of baseball deprivation. But in the South, where the seasons are reversed, it's time for Opening Day.
This annual ritual of rebirth and renewal has been especially meaningful in Australia this season. After a 10-year absence, professional baseball has returned to the continent in the form of the Australia Baseball League. The six-team circuit will play a 40-game schedule, with rosters comprised of native born and foreign players.
This past Saturday marked the ABL's official launch, with the Sydney Blue Sox eking out a 1-0 victory over the Canberra Calvary. Chris Oxspring, a former Major Leaguer and Australia native, hurled six shutout innings for the winning club. Red Sox prospect Mitch Dening, a fellow Australian, contributed a tiebreaking eighth-inning single, and 41-year-old Korean baseball legend Dae-Sung Koo earned the save.
The inaugural game's standout players are indicative of the ABL's high level of play and international scope. The circuit is a joint venture of Major League Baseball International and the Australian Baseball Federation, the continent's governing body of baseball, and will serve as a developmental hub while also increasing the sport's presence.
"Major League Baseball is very excited about the opportunity to join the Australian Baseball Federation in bringing professional baseball back to Australia," said Major League Baseball International VP Paul Archey when the league was announced. "With the level of talent originating Down Under, it is only natural that a national baseball league returns, both for the players and for the fans."
Selling the product
At the helm of the newly reformed ABL is CEO Peter Wermuth, a German-born, U.S.-educated executive who had previously served as MLB International's director of business development. His work in this capacity led to his current position.
"In looking for projects that we may want to involve ourselves with and invest in, Australia was an obvious choice," he explained. "It's a safe environment, English-speaking, a place that nearly everyone in the world has access to. In addition, Australia has a tremendous amount of existing baseball talent. There are a lot of full-time Major League Baseball personnel here, scouts and Pacific Rim coordinators, and that gives everyone involved a lot of confidence."
The full cooperation of MLB has been crucial to the ABL's high talent level. The rosters were assembled under the direction of ABL operations manager Ben Foster, and include prominent names such as Ryan Rowland-Smith and Trent Oeltjen in addition to former Major Leaguers, current Minor Leaguers and professionals from South Korean and Japan.
Wermuth thinks the high level of talent will be crucial to the ABL's success, adding that "Australia is one of the most sports-mad countries in the world, and at the end of the day the people here just want to see good competition."
But while Australia possesses a subculture of knowledgeable and passionate baseball fans, the sport is not deeply ingrained in the culture.
"We're fortunate to have a sophisticated fan base that will form the nucleus of our audience, but we need to continually find ways to provide education," said Wermuth. "For example, our [PA] announcers might say a little bit more about what just happened on the field, like 'A double, and two runs scored!' That's the kind of thing you might hear on a TV broadcast in the States, but not at the ballpark."
Cricket, one of baseball's progenitors, has long been a popular sport in Australia. The similarities between the two can provide valuable reference points for baseball neophytes.
"We can tell fans that if you enjoy slick fielding and fast bowling [pitching], or crafty bowling, then you'll enjoy baseball. It will help to access that fan base," said Wermuth.
But in many respects, the ABL will emulate the tried-and-true marketing techniques of Minor League Baseball. While the action on the field remains the most important thing, it will be supplemented by between-inning games and contests, mascot antics, eye-catching logos, giveaway items and goofy theme nights.
"Because baseball is still a niche sport here, we'll market ourselves as a great entertainment product and drawing heavily on Minor League Baseball in that regard," said Wermuth. "We might not be as over-the-top as in the United States, where they're trying to appeal to a crowd that has seen it all, but the entertainment aspect is going to help attract fans at a moment when they might not yet fully appreciate what baseball is all about."
Laying the groundwork
One of Wermuth's most important tasks as CEO has been to staff each of the ABL's six clubs. While the majority of the hires were native Australians, he said "it doesn't hurt to have some Americans in the mix, experienced baseball people who can come here and apply what they've learned in Minor League Baseball."
One such individual is Tyler Maun. After spending the 2010 season as the broadcaster for the Carolina League's Myrtle Beach Pelicans, he relocated to Australia in order to serve as media relations director for the Sydney Blue Sox.
"What I've been doing is basically the equivalent of what we have three or four departments for in Myrtle Beach," said Maun, who applied for the job on a whim after seeing an online posting. "I've been working in production and promotions as well as media relations and website stuff. ... I'm the only one here on the staff who has worked in the States before, so they're bouncing ideas off of me and asking about the way we do things in Myrtle Beach. It can be overwhelming, but it's a great experience."
And part of the experience is adjusting to cultural idiosyncrasies.
"One of the funniest things is getting used to the slang," said Maun. "They're speaking English, but are really into shortening words. So, instead of 'What's happening this afternoon?' you'll hear 'What's happening this arvo?' I'm like 'What in God's name is an arvo'?"
But the sport of baseball won't get lost in translation, especially when so many of the players are Australians themselves.
"This is something we can market as a hometown product, and something the fans can identify with," said Maun. "I know it's important to the players that this is something that kids can look up to, and the hope is that it lays the groundwork for the next generation of baseball in Australia."
Indeed, this is one of the ABL's most important characteristics.
"One of Major League Baseball's goals in being involved with this is to build the sport around the world, and the [Australian Baseball Federation] is involved because they want to build the sport throughout the country," said Wermuth. "We want to make sure that there's a synergy here. That when someone goes to an ABL game for the first time, they're going to then want to drive to their [local amateur] club and sign up. And vice versa, after practicing with the club team they're going to want to drive to see the ABL.
"We do expect significant growth."