Why The NHL Was More Successful Than The MLB In Opening Their Season Abroad

The MLB opened their season in Japan last week. Did you notice?

The Major League Baseball season is underway! Music to the ears of many people including hockey fans. Although attention will undoubtedly be on the Stanley Cup Playoffs in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and St. Louis, there is no doubt that these cities love their baseball teams. But, did you know that Opening Day was on Wednesday when the Miami Marlins hosted the St. Louis Cardinals? If you’re a baseball fan, you probably did know that, but only because you have heard the countless barbs on SportsCenter and among your friends. The MLB opened their season in Tokyo, Japan with a two game series between the Oakland Athletics and the Seattle Mariners on March 28 and March 29. Odd, right? Especially because when the A’s and the Mariners returned to the States, they continued playing Spring Training games!

This got me thinking about how MLB’s Opening Day compared to the National Hockey League’s start to the season in Europe:

The MLB Succeeded In Getting More Games Played Abroad

The NHL sent four teams to play games in Europe – the New York Rangers, the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings, and the Buffalo Sabres. The four teams each played two games against each other in numerous cities – Berlin, Germany, Stockholm, Sweden, and Helsinki, Finland. Although the MLB sent fewer teams to Japan, the league actually got more games out of their two teams as each team played two games against Japanese opponents. From a business viewpoint, having six games played is a win for the MLB over the NHL’s four games played.

When looking at the business side of the decision to play abroad, it is simple to see that the point of going abroad is to make more revenue and grow the sport abroad. To that point, the MLB had six games, which is superior to four games. Both the MLB and the NHL did very well in ticket sales, but what the NHL failed to do was engage their teams against Europe’s teams. Although the MLB played exhibition games against the Japanese teams, these were still interesting games that were very well attended. The MLB by putting on six games and playing against Japanese teams was able to more effectively create revenue and interest for MLB.

The NHL Televised Their Games On National Television

The NHL season truly kicked off with the games in Europe as evidenced by the fact that people saw the games! We witnessed them! With the time difference, the games were shown in the afternoon in the Eastern time zone, which although not most convenient, still worked. Most importantly, the games were on national television on NBC and were hyped as the beginning of the season. All NHL viewers interested in watching the games could watch. Of course, the viewers that were most interested were the fans of the four teams in Europe, and they were able to watch as well.

The MLB hid their games in Tokyo, which is 13 hours ahead of the Eastern time zone and 16 hours ahead of the Pacific time zone. Games were starting in the wee hours of the morning and Mariners and A’s fans were not able to watch. The MLB should have done two things: 1) found a time to play the games that would make sense for the Japanese fans and the American fans and 2) televised them nationally. For example, if the games started at 1:00PM in Tokyo, at least the team’s fans on the West Coast could watch the games, which would have started at 9:00PM. That seems more reasonable than having the games start at 6:04 JST, which is 2:00AM on the West Coast. As well, fans in the states could not watch the games live. Not until an uproar led MLB to show the second game between the Mariners and the A’s on MLB.tv did the fans get the opportunity to watch the games live. It is important to grow the sport abroad, but the MLB was growing the sport at the expense of their home fans. The NHL did a much better job navigating the waters between the experiences for all fans.

The NHL Did Not Go Back To Preseason Games After Their Trip Abroad

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of the MLB’s games abroad was that the Mariners and A’s continued their Spring Training games when they returned to the United States. They played on March 28 and 29, and between those days and April 6, they played more Spring Training games. This throws fans and players off. Fans of MLB are basically told to ignore the games abroad because not only can you not watch them, but the teams are playing a strange schedule in which they play games that count, then they go back to practicing, and then they start playing games that count again. As fans, we just ignore the first two games as if they didn’t happen. Why not just have the Mariners and A’s play the two exhibition games against the Japanese teams and then play Spring Training games against each other?

The NHL definitely incorporated their games abroad more gracefully into their schedule. Each team abroad started their regular seasons with a game on October 7 and then a game on October 8. On the 7th, the four teams abroad were the only NHL teams in action. On the 8th, teams in the states also played as they started their seasons. There was no awkward return to the States for the Sabres, Ducks, Kings, and Rangers. The four teams came back, took a week from games, and then got back into the regular season. In the meantime, teams that remained Stateside played regular season games. This made sense! What the MLB did was confusing and felt like a gimmick. Inherently, we felt like we could ignore the games in Japan.

Overall the NHL was able to pull of the start to their season abroad more successfully than the MLB. Although the NHL had fewer games, the league did engage both foreign and domestic fans by starting the regular season and showing the games to a national audience. For the NHL, the start to the season was for all hockey fans and could not be ignored. On the otherhand, for the MLB, the start of the season was for Japanese fans, and it was too easy for the fans to ignore real, regular season games. Advantage to the NHL on this one!