Dubai-based professional baseball league announces first franchise, Mumbai Cobras

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Baseball United, which swung for the sports history fences by establishing the first professional baseball league in the Middle East and South Asia, announced Monday its first franchise, the Mumbai Cobras.

The Cobras are the first of four teams to be announced. In the coming weeks, three more will be revealed, with the Dubai, United Arab Emirates-based Baseball United poised to host a showcase tournament in November at Dubai International Stadium. The tournament will take place a year after Baseball United was first established.

Baseball United’s player pool consists of more than 200 players from more than 30 countries. Of those, 64 players will be selected for the teams. The remaining players will be drafted in anticipation of the organization’s inaugural season starting in the fall of 2024.

Baseball United has said several players from the U.S. will play in the league, though it has yet to announce any names.

“Major League Baseball is over 150 years old and has so much romance and pageantry. And, you know, it’s one of the few American sports that have yet to be exported to this part of the world,” said Kash Shaikh, president and CEO of Baseball United.

Baseball will have to compete with cricket, another bat-and-ball game that is the most popular sport in many South Asian countries, and boasts a fan base of approximately a billion people in the region.

Shaikh said in the digital announcement Monday that Baseball United will be introducing some yet-to-be announced rules that differ from the MLB and “things that you’d never see in other professional baseball leagues” to further appeal to cricket audiences.

Cricket’s shortest and most exciting format took off in India in 2008 when the Indian Premier League was formed. The IPL’s five-year broadcasting rights are now worth more than $6 billion.

Aside from cricket, soccer remains a dominant sport in the Middle East and South Asia regions and its popularity continues to soar. Qatar spent over $220 billion to host the 2022 World Cup, a staggering 15 times more than previous host Russia did in 2018.

Some sports have been able to make inroads into the Middle East. In October of last year, the United Arab Emirates hosted the Milwaukee Bucks and Atlanta Hawks in the first National Basketball Association games in the Middle East. The region has also become a prominent destination for various motorsports events, with Formula 1 races held in Bahrain, the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Dubai, Baseball United's center of operations and prospective host of the first baseball game, is a strategic location for the startup baseball league. “Dubai is going to be the foundation, the epicenter and the launch pad,” said Shaikh.

Not only is the UAE well endowed with wealthy investors, but the country is also home to over 4 million Indian and Pakistani expats, many of whom have embraced cricket as somewhat of a religion. An estimated 133 million people tuned in to watch the two Asian heavyweights last time they faced off at Dubai International Stadium in August of 2022, according to streaming platform Disney+ Hotstar.

Mariano Rivera and Barry Larkin, two of Major League Baseball's most decorated former stars with a combined six World Series Championships and 25 All-Star Game selections, are two high-profile investors in Baseball United.

Shaikh says the league will own the initial four teams and four additional teams to be unveiled next year. He hopes the teams can eventually reap lucrative returns at auction.

“Sports teams valuations are really becoming the new gold, if you look at how they performed over the last 40 years, 50 years versus the market,” he said.

According to Forbes Magazine, the Mumbai Indians are the most valuable franchise in the Indian Premier League with an estimated worth of $1.3 billion, while the average value of MLB teams has risen by 12% this year to reach $2.32 billion.

Drawing inspiration from the MLB and IPL, Shaikh says that revenue sharing at Baseball United is “going to occur at the broadcast level, at the sponsorship level, at the ticketing level, the (merchandise) level.”

Baseball United said it will be announcing new franchises, TV licensing group partnerships and sponsorships in the coming weeks.