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Dodgers season opener: In Australia, MLB sees a test-case for international expansion

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At 1 a.m. Saturday morning, the Major League Baseball season officially gets underway. The Dodgers will play the Arizona Diamondbacks more than seven thousand miles away, at a cricket stadium in Sydney, in the first of two games.

So, why is the season opening in Australia? It’s not because baseball is very popular Down Under.

“We’re tiny still here," said Peter Wermuth, the Australian Baseball League’s chief executive.

But MLB would like to change that, so five years ago they bought a 75 percent stake in the Australian Baseball League, and sent Wermuth from New York to Sydney to run the league. It was the first time MLB purchased a foreign league, and Wermuth hopes if all goes well, it won’t be the last.

“It’s really a test case for potential future investments,” said Wermuth. “This is our core competency, running a league. If we can do it elsewhere, maybe there might be an opportunity to do it again in other countries.”

There are just six teams in the Australian Baseball League, which owns all of them. The league isn't profitable yet, but Wermuth hopes this tour can help put the league in the black, by enticing fans who come to see Major League clubs and to sample local ones.

“We want to capture them, and identify who they are, and follow up with them and say, ‘If you like this–if you like the Dodgers playing the Diamonds­–why don’t you come to see Dodgers prospects playing for Adelaide Bite in the Australian Baseball League?”

Dodger players complain about 14-hour trip

For their part, the Dodgers are hoping to attract new fans down under, the way the Yankees are loved in Japan. But mostly, Dodgers President Stan Kasten said what’s good for baseball is good for the Dodgers.

“We’re very deeply invested in the growth of the game and all of that is good for each of the teams,” said Kasten. “Each of us does our part.” (Kasten said MLB is picking up the tab for the considerable travel expenses)

Even Vin Scully–who rarely travels east of Arizona–made the 14-hour trip. But some players have been less dutiful.

Ace Clayton Kershaw said he didn’t want to pitch in Australia and number two pitcher Zach Greinke said a couple weeks ago he couldn’t think of one reason to be excited about the trip.

“I would say there is absolutely zero excitement for it," Greinke told ESPNLosAngeles.com. "There just isn’t any excitement to it.”

The comments were picked up in the Australian press, threatening to create an international incident.

Greinke ended up being left behind with a calf injury. Kershaw will start game one, and MLB and the Dodgers assured everyone that players were excited to go to Australia. Perhaps to further smooth things over with the locals, MLB posted a video of Kershaw and other Dodgers trying to speak with an Australian accent.

A long history of baseball in Sydney

The Dodgers will play at the Sydney Cricket Grounds, the same stadium where 100 years ago the Chicago White Sox defeated the New York Giants in an exhibition game. It’s also the same field where in 1888, two team of major league teams competed on a tour organized by sporting goods magnate Albert Spalding.

MLB historian John Thorn says after the players boarded their steamship in San Francisco they learned they were on a journey that would last six months.

“All the ballplayers believed they were embarking on an Australian trip and would return to the U.S,” said Thorn. “It was only while they were on the board that they learned that Spaulding had extended the tour to become global and go on from Australia to today what is Sri Lanka, and then to Africa and then to Europe.”

Spalding’s goal in 1888 was to introduce America’s pastime to the world, something in 2014 Major League baseball is still working on.

NBA most successful at international expansion

Previous baseball openers have been played in Mexico, Japan, and Puerto Rico and the NFL is adding a third London game this season.

"Unlike manufacturing corporations, you can't export your product," said Andrew Zimbalist, a sports economist at Smith College. "So all of the sports leagues are geographically bound, and they make their efforts to expand their markets and one way to do that is to take your game physically to these countries. It tends to generate excitement."

Zimbalist said no U.S. league has been able to approach the global appeal of the NBA, thanks to its former commissioner.

“Basketball has caught on in a very significant way in Europe,” said Zimbalist. “This is a program David Stern initiated in the 1980’s and pursued intelligently and aggressively.”

$13 million in economic impact expected

This weekend’s games in Sydney will attract 10 thousand visitors and pump more than $13 million into the local economy, according to Sandra Chipchase, the head of New South Whales’ tourism organization, who also happens to be the rare Australian baseball fan.

“I love the family atmosphere,” said Chipchase. “I love the camaraderie. I love the singing. And I certainly love the action-packed sports.”

Australia has produced 31 Major League players through the years, including former Dodgers infielder Craig Shipley, who's currently an assistant to Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers.

"Who would have ever thought that in 1986 when Craig Shipley came to major leagues that suddenly the major leagues would be coming to him in a sense, as far as the season opening in 2014 in Australia," said Dodgers team historian Mark Langill. "It shows what a truly global sport this is becoming."

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