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Baseball ready to strike home run in the Middle East

Baseball United CEO Kash Shaikh (left) launches Dubai Wolves and Abu Dhabi Falcons, the first professional baseball franchises in the Gulf Baseball United
Baseball United CEO Kash Shaikh (left) launches Dubai Wolves and Abu Dhabi Falcons, the first professional baseball franchises in the Gulf
  • First professional baseball league in region launches in November
  • Baseball United boss hopes sport will rival cricket and football
  • Full 2024 season involves UAE and Qatar before expanding to Saudi

When the opening pitch is thrown at Dubai International Stadium in November it will signal the official start of the first ever professional baseball league in the Middle East and South Asia.

And the power broker behind the ambitious project hopes the 25,000-seater venue will be at least a quarter full to mark the inaugural match between Mumbai Cobras and Karachi Monarchs.

“The lower bowl holds about 7,500,” Kash Shaikh, president and majority owner of Baseball United, tells AGBI.

“If we can even fill that, it’s going to be pretty monumental.”

To put this into context, when India played Pakistan in the men’s T20 Asia Cup last year, some 24,511 cricket fans turned out to cheer on their respective side.

It’s what Shaikh describes as a “massive challenge and massive opportunity baked into one”.

“There’s no such thing as an overnight success. We’ve got to put in the work. The first year is going to be very hard, but we have a resilient group that’s had a lot of wins and a lot of losses, but they know how to build,” he says.

“Over time we’ll be able to grow this into what we believe will be the next greatest sport in the region.”

The venture is being funded by Shaikh and “a group of carefully selected entrepreneurs and baseball legends” from the US.

This includes Seattle Mariners Hall of Famer Felix Hernandez and New York Yankees world champion Nick Swisher.

Middle East baseballBaseball United
Shaikh pictured with former Seattle Mariners player Felix Hernandez and major league baseball star Adrián Beltré

Meetings have already taken place with the region’s top sovereign wealth funds, including representatives from Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala, Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and the Qatar Investment Authority.

“We haven’t yet opened up an institutional funding round because we don’t need to,” Shaikh says.

“We do envisage raising a good amount of capital from here in the region with the right partners but we want to show them what we can do first.”

Baseball vs cricket and football

Shaikh says they had initially hoped to tap into the 50,000 American expat market, but quickly discovered that “there are way more baseball fans than any of us ever imagined”.

According to his figures, this includes 53 million avid baseball fans in India, 12.5 million in Pakistan, 1.5 million in Saudi Arabia and 800,000 in the UAE.

When it comes to competing against other hugely popular sports in the region, Shaikh says that the baseball fans as more “premium” than cricket lovers.

“The baseball fan is higher educated, there’s a higher employment rate, higher income than not only the cricket fan, but the average citizen,” he says.

“They spend more time on social media, stream more content, play more sports, go to more live events.”

As for football, according to Neil Joyce, founder and CEO of data consultancy CLV Group, there are 30 million actively engaging soccer fans in the Middle East, with six million alone following the English Premier League.

“While baseball as a product in the Middle East may face a strong task to compete with soccer, there must be a business case for targeting South East Asian audiences where baseball has stronger affinity and product,” he says.

Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema Business School in Paris, adds that how Baseball United engages Gen Z and Gen Alpha consumers will be “an acid test of whether the sport can establish a foothold”.

middle east baseballCreative Commons/Keith Allison
New York Yankees world champion Nick Swisher is one of the investors in Baseball United

Competing alongside the teams from Mumbai and Karachi on the opening weekend will be the Dubai Wolves and Abu Dhabi Falcons.

The opening showcase weekend will be played over three days in November between the four franchises.

The first full season next year will see the number of franchises double to eight with 65 matches planned – at least half played in Dubai with the remainder in Abu Dhabi and Doha, with two of the 2022 World Cup stadiums eyed up as potential venues.

In 2025 the league will expand into Saudi Arabia.

In the US every single president is among those to have thrown the ceremonial pitch, but for Baseball United the identity of the person to take the mound in November remains a closely guarded secret.

“There’s a healthy competition and debate on who it is,” says Shaikh. “We’ve got a lot of top candidates.”

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