It's March, so that means the Los Angeles Dodgers must be off somewhere playing baseball. Arizona? Florida? Puerto Rico? The Caribbean? No. Taiwan? Of course. That's where Joe Torre and crew are spending the week. It may seem like a distraction from the routines of the Grapefruit and Cactus Leagues and probably doesn't thrill the businesses that thrive on legions of fans heading to the new Dodgers facility in Arizona, but for the Dodgers the trip is a rite of passage that is time honored and keeps their brand growing around the world at a time when baseball, despite its raging success on the professional level globally, needs to keep opening new doors and engaging a new level of fan who is migrating into the United States these days.
In short, it may be viewed as a disruption, but it is very, very smart business for the brand. The idea of the Dodgers trotting the globe is not a new one. While many casual fans think of the Yankees (rightfully so) as one of sports preeminent brands, it is really the Dodgers who have set the pace for not just opening new markets for the business of baseball, but for continuing to cultivate the routes that they and others have opened.
In their days in Brooklyn, we know about Branch Rickey's work to identify and break the color barrier in sport with Jackie Robinson, but his teams also made regular trips into Cuba and the Caribbean and eventually Japan, to bring the international language of baseball and America's Game to new legions of fans. Recently the team has made trips to an event wider swath of emerging and established baseball territories, from China and Mexico to Korea and Taiwan, to build baseball diplomacy and help grow the sport.
Their work in the Latino community and in developing young talent and fans is amazing, and Mr. Dodger himself, Tommy Lasorda, has spent countless hours spreading the good news and the sport to emerging baseball countries like Italy and Spain (where he also led Team USA to a surprising Gold Medal in the Barcelona Olympics). Now is it a disruption to take these trips before the long, drawn out and competitive season begins for the team and the brand? Yes. Do most teams, for fear of injury or exhaustion, chose to not go the international route? Sure. However, the Dodgers continue to always be one of the first ones to the table when the chance to grow globally comes up. It may not be a short term benefit for those wearing the uniform today, but it is a long term pop for the team, the brand and for the sport.
So what do the Dodgers, who are perennial National League West contenders playing to full or near-full houses in Chavez Ravine stand to benefit from these road trips to Asia and other places? First, the team sits in one of the most ethnically and racially diverse areas in North America. Its fan base is strong, but like the rest of America, it is changing. Peoples who in past generations came to the United States from Eastern Europe and took to baseball as a way to learn the American way are now coming more and more from Asia and from Latin America, where they can stay more and more in their own communities and continue to play sports that they are already familiar with...sports like soccer and even cricket. Baseball is not part of their culture as much as it once was abroad, so it does not become part of their culture here that quickly as it once did.
Going abroad and growing the Dodger brand gives the team a chance to identify with a new fan base before those new faces come to America. It also can create conversation and a commonality between those who live outside of the States with relatives who are now here, and may give those people now here an incentive to follow baseball, and follow the Dodgers, where there was not as much of an incentive before. And although in this day of instant communication there is probably no longer a way for potential on field talent to hide, the Dodger trips abroad still give their team a chance to see young emerging talent and even help cultivate that talent at a very young age more than if they were back in the States and collecting data and scouting prospects.
It is true that Major League Baseball International does do a great job of bringing together and identifying elite talent and marketing the game outside of North America. However, the immediate presence of a team...in the flesh...is an experience that cannot be copied virtually, on tape, or even through apparel or the appearance of talent evaluators. It is what makes us all love sports. The ability to experience the games and its stars close up and in real time, to see and feel a moment as it happens, without the need of a DVR or a cell phone app. That real experience can help the brand...in this case the Dodger brand,,,grow tenfold. So does a trip to Taiwan bring the Dodgers the World Series this year? Maybe not. But it does help make the team much more a team of the world, and in today's emerging global economy, winning that type of a brand game may be even more valuable.