The whole thing takes a huge effort, and not just because Dyersville isn’t exactly the kind of place made to host a major sporting event. Last year, players flew to small airports in Iowa and traveled by bus on country roads the morning of the game. Fans parked in black spots and saw their cadence increase as they made their way through cornfields to get to the park, then drove on winding roads back to distant hotels.
But after the hugely exciting 2021 matchup between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, MLB decided to do it all again, this time with the local favorite Cubs and the oldest franchise in the game, the Reds. If MLB wants to expand its reach in Iowa, there are easier ways — such as eliminating broadcast blackouts that make it difficult for residents of the state to watch any of the six “home” teams because of conflicting TV deals. But MLB chose to make the trip — and the effort — at least one more time.
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“There’s no doubt that it’s a lot of effort. Just getting there is an effort. Finding places to house people and transportation and all that kind of stuff,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operating and strategy officer. “But maybe the easiest way to answer that is we had the highest rating of any regular season baseball game [in years]. You’re willing to put in the effort when you see results like this when it cuts through the noise. We saw how successful that was.”
Something about the 2021 game seems to have stuck. According to Fox Sports, it was the most-watched regular season game on any network since 2005 and the most televised regular season game in Fox Sports history. What MLB will find out Thursday is whether the novelty of the game made it so appealing, or whether something about the model can continue to hold fans’ attention.
The owners of the Field of Dreams site, including Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, have notified MLB that they won’t be able to host a game next year because of construction plans, according to a person familiar with the situation who said MLB will consider to return to Dyersville in the coming years.
But whatever happens Thursday, MLB is already considering other, similar event-style games in the future, Marinak said.
For example, MLB announced that the Cubs and their archrival, the St. Louis Cardinals, will play a two-game series in London next June, the second such series since the Yankees and Boston Red Sox played there in 2019. The San Diego Padres and The Arizona Diamondbacks were scheduled to play games in Mexico City during the 2020 season before it was cut short due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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And when MLB negotiated its new collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union this year, the pact included a commitment to hold games or tours in Asia, the Dominican Republic, London, Mexico, Paris and Puerto Rico over the next four seasons. Those games, Marinak said, will be less about the event than the place, less about one particular moment than a broader effort to reach new fans in new areas. In London, for example, MLB organized a new competition called Home Run Derby X that pitted former major leaguers against each other this summer.
“We’re looking at fans in international markets and the game really helps solidify a marketing initiative around that audience. London next year — this is not done in isolation. It’s not a standalone game [like the ‘Field of Dreams’ game],” he said, noting that like the Little League Classic, which MLB will host in Williamsport, Pa., this month, international games can be relevant again and again because MLB’s marketing to geographic or demographic groups continues year after year.
Marinak said MLB is having conversations about other ways to connect event-style games in non-traditional venues with other areas where it is trying to expand its reach. For example, a report in Ballpark Digest recently suggested that Bosse Field, the historical setting of the movie “A League of Their Own,” is on MLB’s radar as a potential venue in the next few years. During last year’s “Field of Dreams” broadcast, MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds singled out Hinchliffe Stadium in Patterson, N.J. — one of the last remaining stadiums that will host Negro League games — as another attractive option.
MLB would not confirm those locations as potential venues, and Marinak said there were no firm plans for future games as of Wednesday. But he acknowledged that places like those — places with strong baseball traditions — are the places MLB would consider for events along the lines, if not exactly, of what will happen in Dyersville Thursday night.
“I have no doubt that in the next few years we will have some of these types of games. We don’t have any firm plans for what that might be right now, but we’re having active conversations internally about any ideas,” Marinak said.
“Reaching out to the African-American fan base, the history of the Negro Leagues is definitely an area where we are looking to improve our engagement. I see a game that fits into that area. Something around women in baseball might be something that makes sense,” he added. “Or things around certain geographies, certain areas of the country that have a rich baseball history and trying to bring a game there to bring those to life.”
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What may become clearer after Thursday’s game is exactly how much of an appetite baseball fans have for watching such events when they are no longer unique. While games in odd venues are often likely to draw capacity crowds — tickets to last year’s “Field of Dreams” game went for thousands of dollars on the secondary market — they’re not sure to provide the same kind of national television interest when the stage isn’t so new and when the participants are less famous than the vaunted Yankees and White Sox stars.
But Marinak said he’s not worried about saturating the market with events like these, in large part because they take a lot of effort and preparation to pull off — even in a place where MLB has previously held an event.
“There are so many ‘shoot the moon’ ideas. But when you hit one, you want to hit it, and certainly Field of Dreams fits into that category,” he said. “I’m sure in the coming years other ideas may emerge that match this, and it’s something you know when you see it.”