LONDON — Rachel Marsh can pinpoint when she Chicago Cubs fandom began. It was one of those groundhog days in lockdown in July 2020 when her friend Sarah, video calling from Chicago, told her to host the Cubs Brewers game. Fascinated, she watched and was quickly enthusiastic.
Marsh, a 25-year-old teacher living in Kent, England, didn’t know the rules, but that was okay: a bunch of Google searches and message boards could fix that. She returned to her television for the remainder of the series. Then another series. Within weeks, she was reading about the years the Cubs hadn’t lived up to their expectations — and the one year, 2016, that they finally won. She identified with the pain. Within months, Marsh was all in, discussing on-base percentages (OBP) and earned run averages (ERA) with new friends, making baseball memes on Twitter, and flattering her favorite player: No. 44, Anthony Rizzo.
“I’m such a sports fan. I’m a nerd when it comes to that,” Marsh tells ESPN. “Give me those stats. Give me those weird numbers. I love that.”
Every baseball fan living in Europe has a different start to their fanbase when the wee hours – the time in the UK when games are usually live – include highlights and scrolling for player trade news. The interesting thing about Marsh’s introduction to baseball is its timing.
MLB landed in London 2019 with an incredible scoring streak (the New York Yankees won both games over the Boston Red Sox in a streak that saw an incredible 50 runs scored) that captivated fans and gave impetus to the league’s efforts to grow its European fan base. However, this hype was soon stopped. The COVID-19 pandemic dashed the promise of another London series the following summer and then the two summers that followed. The reduced schedule of 60 games in 2020 was also an obstacle. With the introduction of the MLB lockout in 2022, the brakes were applied even harder.
Now MLB is back with regular season games in London and another rivalry: the Chicago Cubs clash St Louis Cardinals at the London Stadium in a two-game series this weekend. This series is significant to MLB’s European ambitions, also symbolized by the fact that Commissioner Rob Manfred will also be in town.
But after a four-year absence, can the league regain the initial momentum of 2019?
John McGee, one of the founders of Britain’s biggest baseball podcast, Bat Flips and Nerds, recalls the excitement among fans. The podcast hit record numbers and its social media was awash with questions from Brits wanting to know more about what they were watching.
“The games were just exceptional. Friends of mine who’ve never been to a baseball game would say, ‘Is this usually the case?’” McGee says with a laugh. “No, it’s so different.”
But just as momentum was gathering, the COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed not only the sport of baseball, but the entire world. The MLB season was suspended and resumed in July – at that point even the idea of hosting games internationally seemed far-fetched when having to host them domestically was a tall order. While the NFL and NBA returned to Europe at their earliest convenience after international travel became more easily possible, MLB still needed an extra effort or two to make its comeback across the pond.
“We [fans] “It’s kind of kind of been forgotten,” says McGee.
The European MLB office – headed by Ben Ladkin, who took on the role shortly after the 2019 London series – tried its best to keep fans engaged. They sent out care packages to numerous UK-based fan groups and took a new approach.
“We didn’t have the games in 2020 and while that was really a big shame and obviously it wasn’t a good thing in any way, it gave us an opportunity to step back a little and say, ‘Okay, we have that first.’ Series, how do we build this for the next time we bring teams together?’” says Ladkin.
Ladkin’s main focus was getting Europeans to pay more attention to baseball on a daily basis, no easy feat in a sport that often asks the same question in America. He drove the transformation of the league’s content offering in Europe, including bringing in familiar faces to introduce fans to the game – British faces in particular. The league has teamed up with English cricketer Harry Brook, who briefly coached with the Cardinals to learn how to bat in the big leagues – spoilers: it’s very different from cricket – while English and Australian cricketers Jimmy Anderson and Nathan Lyon will put their game aside Ashe’s rivalry for the first pitch this weekend.
MLB isn’t the only one trying to gain a foothold in London. American sports leagues have continually worked to grow their fan base in Europe over the past decade, with the English capital serving as a constant focal point. The NFL has hosted regular season games since 2007 with increasing success. The NBA hosted regular season games in London between 2011 and 2019 before turning its attention to Paris.
Now, MLB is returning with a deal to host more series in 2024 — between the Philadelphia Phillies And New York Mets. The Yankees want to play in Paris in 2025. However, the London games will continue into 2026 with the aim of expanding the games to a three or four game series in the future. The mission is to make London a home.
“I hope this weekend will rekindle Major League Baseball’s place in the public consciousness, because that was really felt for a couple of months in 2019,” McGee said.
One of those new wave fans since 2019 will be Marsh. The upcoming Cubs games won’t be their first. Last summer, she made the pilgrimage to Wrigley Field and watched six games in five days (she also specifically mentions that she left with a .500-plus record). Anthony Rizzo remains her favorite player, even after a 2021 trade that sent him to the New York Yankees.
In recent weeks, Marsh has had many questions about the sport from fellow new fans: the rules, where is the best place to sit in the stadium, and which players are the best to watch.
Sometimes they ask them which team to support. There is no prize for guessing her answer.
“The boys!” she says. “But also just baseball in general. It’s about spreading it in the UK and I like that even more.”