BRISBANE, Australia — Two Hall of Fame baseball players are leading a push to bring the sport that made them famous to India, Pakistan and the Middle East.
Former New York Yankees pitcher Mariano Rivera and ex-Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin are the familiar faces behind the United International Baseball League. The UIBL plans to bring professional baseball to an area of the world more associated with another bat-on-ball sport — cricket.
The league will begin with an inaugural showcase tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates in February next year. Further plans for the location of teams and their personnel are still in the works.
The League said in a statement that the Indian subcontinent and the Middle East region are home to two billion people “and more than 900 million of those people are fans of cricket.”
“While baseball exists in small pockets across south Asia and the Gulf . . . there is an absence of professional leagues and a void of deep, grassroots player development expertise and infrastructure,” the statement added. “The UIBL team is looking to change that.”
The Panama-born Rivera spent his entire career with the Yankees over 19 seasons from 1995 to 2013, primarily as a relief pitcher and closer. He made 13 All-Star Game appearances, won five World Series, is MLB’s all-time leader in saves with 652 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2019.
“I’m very grateful to be a part of the UIBL’s exciting mission to inspire two billion new fans to fall in love with baseball,” Rivera said. “We believe there is an amazing opportunity to educate, inspire and entertain those cricket fans, and open their hearts to an exciting and culturally-relevant form of baseball.”
The Cincinnati-born Larkin was a career-long Reds player in his hometown. He won an MVP award, a World Series title, was selected to 12 All-Star teams and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2012.
Larkin said teaching prospective baseball talent the basics was a strong part of the new league’s mission.
“We truly believe that player development has to start at the grassroots level,” Larkin said. “I’ve spent the last 20 years of my life focused on helping young people learn the fundamentals of our great game, as well as the fundamentals of great leadership. That’s the beauty of baseball — when you teach it the right way with the right conviction, you can help young people succeed on and off the field.”
The new league said that while baseball’s fan base has an average age of 57 years old, cricket fans are among the world’s youngest sports fans, with an average age of 34. Nowhere is cricket more popular than in India and Pakistan.
The UIBL said it has plans to “innovate and evolve” baseball “to help capture and engage this younger, more diverse demographic.”
Without going into specific details, it also said the league will “introduce rule changes, create original game-play concepts, and bring to life a more immersive viewing experience for fans at the stadium and home.”
The inaugural showcase tournament to be played solely in Dubai next February will include four franchises representing different parts of the world. The league said franchises, managers, coaches and rosters will be announced at a later date.
The baseball will have to compete for attention with a new franchise Twenty20 cricket league launching around the same time in the United Arab Emirates, based on the model of the lucrative Indian Premier League.
Star cricketers from around the world are likely to join the six-team International League T20. The league has links to India, where cricket’s shortest and most exciting format took off in 2008 when the IPL was formed. The IPL’s five-year broadcasting rights are now worth more than $6 billion.