Growing the game: New baseball league with Hall of Fame backing set to kick off in Middle East

COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 24: Hall of Famer Barry Larkin is introduced at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 24, 2016 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 24: Hall of Famer Barry Larkin is introduced at Clark Sports Center during the Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony on July 24, 2016 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images) /

Baseball Hall of Famers Barry Larkin and Mariano Rivera are part of the group launching the United International Baseball League (UIBL).

There is a new baseball league that could draw in more fans than even Major League Baseball itself.

On Monday, it was announced that the United International Baseball League (UIBL) will be formed in Pakistan, India, and the Middle East. In that region, there are roughly two billion people and, according to UIBL President and Chief Marketing Officer Kash Shaikh, a billion of them are cricket fans. Cricket, and not baseball, is the world’s most popular bat and ball sport.

That huge fan base is what the UIBL, which has partnered with former Cincinnati Reds shortstop and Baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and former New York Yankees closer and Baseball Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, is hoping to tap into through building, developing, and growing interest in the sport in the Middle East.

Will the United International Baseball League compete against MLB?

In recent news, LIV Golf has launched with Saudi Arabian financial backing as competition for the PGA Tour. But unlike LIV Golf, the UIBL is not looking to compete against MLB, according to UIBL President and CMO Kash Shaikh in an exclusive conversation with FanSided.

“Not at all,” Shaikh said. “Major League Baseball is the holy grail. It’s where everybody wants to be. And all of us (involved with the UIBL) are huge Major League Baseball fans. What we’re really looking at is really a whitespace opportunity for the game of baseball and bringing two billion more fans into the game and helping two billion more fans fall in love with the game.”

Since they won’t have MLB players defecting, in essence, to their league, they won’t have “MLB” players in the league but even in year one, they plan on having players that used to be part of professional baseball.

“Our bar from a professional league standpoint is the vast majority of our roster in year one is going to be people that have played at the professional level across the world,” Shaikh said. “There’s over 200 countries that play baseball and part of the WBC rankings so we have scouts, scouring all those leagues, and we have relationships across all those leagues. We’ll have folks coming from those leagues … [Players] may have played professionally and no longer in the league, or played [at the] minor league level.”

With Larkin and Rivera in tow, they have a lot of MLB expertise involved. And not just from them.

“I can tell you is pretty much everybody that’s on our baseball operation side, our marketing side, and on our development side has worked in around Major League Baseball for many years,” Shaikh said. “I actually represent Barry Larkin (as an agent) … [and] we have a lot of major league players, a lot of former major league players that are passionate about growing the game in any way, and are passionate about making sure that the game continues to be America’s Pastime.”

With the goal of attracting cricket fans from the Middle East, they will be trying to market to a much younger demographic than baseball.

"“Major League Baseball, or professional baseball, has an average fan age of 57 years old,” Shaikh told FanSided. “It’s the oldest sports fan base in the world. And cricket, on the other hand, has an average fan age of 34 years old, more than 20 years younger. The average age of a human in India is 28 years old. 24 years old in Pakistan. You’re talking about a very, very young part of the world, where you have such a significant population and a growing population. So what we’re looking to do is introduce the game to them, keep the foundations and all the beautiful things of baseball that we all grew up with and we all love but strategically evolve it in ways that are going to engage young people.”"

That market is also more in tune to social media. For comparison, the “Mike Trout” of the cricket world (Virat Kohli) has 209 million followers on Instagram. Trout himself has 1.9 million.

The league will have an inaugural showcase in February 2023. It will include four franchises representing different parts of the world. Franchises, managers, coaches, and rosters will be announced at a later date.

The schedule will not be as long as the MLB season but Shaikh revealed that they are looking at a schedule similar to the winter ball schedule of the Dominican Republic, Japan, Mexico, or Korea. All showcase games will be played in Dubai.

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