The “special relationship” between Britain and America has been in full view in recent days, particularly in the sporting arena. So many similarities, yet so many differences. Sometimes that’s what makes the best relationships work.
Liverpool staged a press conference this afternoon announcing the proposed sale of the club to Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks, the latter known among baseball fans as the owner of the Texas Rangers. There were a few “franchise” and “goaltender” gaffes, but by and large it was as smooth a P.R. exercise as you would expect. Not least, Gillett and Hicks followed Randy Lerner’s lead by learning from the Glazer family’s mistake: treating people like idiots. Strolling into a proud city claiming to be long-term fans of the club is the sure-fire way to anger the locals. Gillett and Hicks readily admitted that they were relative newcomers, but stressed their general love of sports and previous/current involvement in major sports teams.
So with three Americans controlling three Premiership clubs, are the United States warming to football at long last? Mmmm, is David Beckham really on a crusade to get more American kids playing “soccer”?! The Premiership is big business and there’s plenty of money to be made.
That’s not to say there cannot be some genuine sporting relationships between the two nations. The Superbowl has just been and gone and the event gets decent coverage over here, much better than the World Series. The Superbowl is significantly easier to market to other countries though, primarily because it is a single-night affair (maybe the 2007 World Series can be marketed over here in a “more than just a one-night stand” campaign?!). Many newspapers carried NFL-related stories in the week leading up to the game and it went out live on Sky Sports and on ITV. Striking the right balance between providing the basics for beginners while not annoying established fans is always difficult. Both stations leaned towards assuming most viewers already had a basic knowledge of the game and that’s the best way to go. ITV played a good card by once again involving Martin Johnson in the coverage. Johnson is a long-time fan (definitely not in the Glazer sense) of the NFL and carries a massive amount of respect among your average British sports fan (possibly grudging respect from the Scots, Welsh and Irish!). His presence and genuine love of the game brings some extra credibility to an event that can all to easily be dismissed as “a bunch of pansies wearing helmets and shoulder pads” by a cynical audience.
Gaining the support of the equivalent British sport is a great way to market a U.S. game over here. Whether cricket can (or wants to) do this for baseball is debatable. Certainly cricket is being influenced by its American cousin. The odd baseball term has started to slip into cricket coverage, particularly during the various shortened versions of the game (“pinch-hitter” is a favourite on Sky Sports, used to describe a batter who comes in to inject some pace into an innings by smacking the ball into the stands). And it’s not just the coverage that has been affected. Australia for example employ Mike Young, a former baseball coach, as their fielding consultant. The results suggest his input is proving beneficial.
The NFL has a very active UK office and their commitment to furthering the sport in Britain was exemplified last week when it was confirmed that a regular season NFL game between the Miami Dolphins and the New York Giants will be played at the new Wembley Stadium in October (if it’s finished by then, of course). It promises to be a fantastic event not least because, however briefly, it will throw the NFL into the nation’s consciousness. London Mayor Ken “drone, drone, drone” Livingstone placed the NFL’s announcement in the context of London’s growing sporting influence, referencing the Tour de France (which will start in our capital city this year) and of course the 2012 Olympics.
What a massive shame it is that baseball/softball will not be a part of it. Every now and then the odd rumour of plans to play a MLB game over here crops up (generally citing the Oval as the possible venue), but the odds of it happening any time soon are slim to none. Had baseball/softball kept its Olympic status it would have been an excellent chance to introduce people to the sport, as well as providing some excellent new facilities for us to use. None of that will happen though thanks to the International Olympic Committee.
Still, let’s not finish on a negative note. The British-American sporting link is thriving and that can only be a good thing for baseball in the long-term. Maybe Tom Hicks will convert Anfield into a baseball arena when Liverpool move to their Stanley Park complex. What would Bill Shankly make of that?!