While the goal for Baseball United CEO Kash Shaikh is to make his new business venture the No. 1 international baseball league, he also is hoping to use America’s favorite pastime as a tool of diplomacy in the Middle East and South Asia.
Baseball being played in places like the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, or India may seem odd to North American fans. However, long-time marketer and entrepreneur Kash Shaikh sees a huge sports fan base to mine in the Middle East and South Asia — or what he calls the bat-and-ball epicenter of the world.
“We did a lot of market research [over the last two years], met people face-to-face, and we found out there are a ton more baseball fans in this region than we ever imagined,” Shaikh told Sportsnaut. “In Dubai alone, there are 450,000 baseball fans. In the UAE there are about 800,000 baseball fans in a country of 10 million people.”
That preexisting fanbase is certainly a great starting point to build from for Baseball United, but the ultimate goal is to create new fans from the over one billion cricket enthusiasts in the region. While the inaugural season of Baseball United does not begin until this time next year, the league is already in the process of building its fanbase and will have a major showcase of its product on November 24 and 25.
Their “United East vs. United West All-Star showcases” — which will feature former MLB stars like Bartolo Colon, Robinson Cano, and Didi Gregorius — will be the league’s first proofs of concept and will take place inside the 25,000-seat Dubai International Stadium in the UAE. Shaikh, the league’s CEO, majority owner, and chairman, admits selling tickets has proven difficult since the region is not known for massive crowds consistently flocking to athletic events. Especially for a sport that is not a tradition in the area.
“On a one to 10 difficulty level, this one is a 47 for us,” Shaikh said with a laugh. “I was just looking at a board of our ticket sales, and I’m like ‘holy [expletive] guys,’ this is not moving as fast we need it to move. And what I’m realizing is it’s different than what we’re used to back home [in the United States]. We’re used to people going in droves to sporting events.
“But out here it’s not necessarily like that. People don’t go to events in masses. Even the cricket events here in Dubai, you might have a few hundred people to a couple thousand at a game.”
Although Shaikh acknowledges the league is behind schedule in sales, the goal is not to sell out the stadium. “Just to get that lower level filled [9,000 seats] would be a monumental undertaking for us,” he says. “Our goal is to get about 5,000 people in the stadium. Which would set a lot of records out here.”
MLB legends Mariano Rivera and Albert Pujols personally invested in Baseball United’s success
Baseball United is very much a work in progress for the Houston native and a passion project he began two years ago with close friend, and Cincinnati Reds legend, Barry Larkin. Yet, for a business venture that is still in its early days, there are already quite a few legendary names tied to its long-term success.
Along with Larkin, MLB Hall-of-Famers and former All-Stars like Mariano Rivera, Albert Pujols, Felix Hernandez, Ryan Howard, Adrian Beltre, and Hanley Ramirez serve as co-owners of the league’s eight teams — only four have been announced — are investors in the league itself. Twelve-year MLB veteran Nick Swisher will play a role as an analyst on broadcasts, and fan favorites like Bartolo Colon and Robinson Cano have already been drafted and will compete in this month’s East vs. West game.
Beyond being a long-term revenue creator for the executive team, Shaikh and the MLB greats involved in the league hope to make Baseball United a platform to further grow the game abroad, and to give more players an opportunity in professional baseball as MLB has narrowed the path to the big leagues in recent years.
“The MLB system has contracted in a significant way over the last few years,” says Shaikh. “They cut the draft in half, cut the minor leagues in half. So you’ve got a lot of guys who would have had opportunities to play at the big league level that don’t anymore. Now we have an opportunity with Baseball United to offer that.”
Baseball diplomacy in the Middle East
Those recognized names and faces will be important in spreading the brand, but also to promote a very American sport in the Middle East. Where tensions are high and interest in Americana could continue to dip due to the United States’ support of Israel’s military actions in the Gaza Strip.
Kash Shaikh admits the situation in Gaza has certainly created a cloud of anxiety in parts of the Middle East, and because of that, the league went away from its originally planned format of playing up rivalries between Dubai and Abu Dhabi, or India and Pakistan. Instead, for their showcase they will present All-Star teams with “united” on their jerseys for the games on Nov. 24 and 25.
While the sudden shift in format was unexpected, it wasn’t really detrimental because it still played to one of the original goals of the league, and that is to promote unity in the region through what the CEO dubbed “baseball diplomacy.”
“When we started coming out here two years ago, we talked about bringing a bit of Americana. How we could leverage a concept called ‘baseball diplomacy’ that we invented, to where we could bring America’s pastime to help unite the region,” he said. “Because, typically, there’s been a lot of conflict in the region. So when we went to all these embassies and consulates, we said, ‘Let’s take an American sport that no one in the region can claim but everybody is inspired by and use that to help bring these people together under a broader value of unity.”
Baseball United’s plan for international dominance
The overall goal of Baseball United is to eventually be “the No. 1 international baseball league in the world.” And they certainly have an uphill climb with leagues in Japan, South Korea, and the Caribbean already having a notable footprint on the sport. However, the league’s brain trust has a strategy for success that makes a lot of sense.
They already have a bunch of former MLB stars involved to help with credibility and brand recognition. Now, the league is talking to a couple of broadcasters to air games in the US. They also are working to lock up television partnerships to broadcast games in places like Japan, India, and Pakistan in 2024.
“For us, we are going to have a truly global audience watching this, which is pretty crazy,” said Shaikh.
The Baseball United President also revealed their games at the end of the month could go a long way in gaining huge future investments from some of the region’s wealthiest investment funds.
In the last year, Shaikh has had discussions with investment funds for the Qatar and Abu Dhabi royal families, as well as the Saudi Arabian Public Investment fund, which owns LIV Golf and recently invested in the Professional Fighters League.
Shaikh also hopes the MLB greats that are a part of the league can help cultivate a long-term relationship with the top baseball league in the world and be complementary to MLB in the years ahead.
Baseball United’s first season will run from Nov. 1 to Dec. 30, 2024, as the league’s eight teams take part in 65 games spread over three major cities in the Middle East.