The whole thing requires a behemoth effort, and not just because Dyersville isn’t exactly the kind of place built to host a major sporting event. Last year, players flew into small Iowa airports and bused along country roads the morning of the game. Fans parked in dirt lots and saw their step counts rise as they made their way through cornfields to get to the park, then drove winding roads back to faraway hotels.
But after 2021’s wildly exciting slugfest between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees, MLB decided to do it all again, this time with the locally beloved Cubs and the game’s oldest franchise, the Reds. If MLB wanted to expand its reach in Iowa, there are easier ways — such as, for example, lifting the broadcast blackouts that make it difficult for the state’s residents to watch any of six “local” teams because of conflicting television deals. But MLB opted to make the trip — and the effort — at least one more time.
“There’s no question it’s a lot of effort. Just getting there is an effort. Finding places to house people and transportation and all that sort of stuff,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer. “But maybe the easiest way to answer 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 that, when it cuts through the noise. We saw how successful that was.”
Something about the 2021 game seemed to stick. According to Fox Sports, it was the most-watched regular season game on any network since 2005 and the most-streamed regular season game in Fox Sports history. What MLB will find out Thursday is whether it was the novelty of the game that made it so appealing or if something about the model can continue to seize fans’ attention.
The “Field of Dreams” site owners, including Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, have let MLB know that they will not be able to host a game next year because of construction plans, according to a person familiar with the situation, who said MLB would consider going back to Dyersville in subsequent years.
But whatever happens Thursday, MLB is already considering other, similar event-style games in the future, Marinak said.
For example, MLB has announced that the Cubs and their biggest rival, the St. Louis Cardinals, will play in a two-game series in London next June, the second such series after the Yankees and Boston Red Sox played there in 2019. The San Diego Padres and Arizona Diamondbacks were scheduled to play games in Mexico City during the 2020 season before it was shortened because of the coronavirus pandemic.
And when MLB negotiated its new collective bargaining agreement with the players union this year, the pact included a commitment to holding 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 location, less about one particular moment than a broader effort to reach out to new fans in new areas. In London, for example, MLB staged a new competition called Home Run Derby X that pitted former major leaguers against one another this summer.
“We’re looking at fans in international markets, and the game really helps cement a marketing initiative around that audience. London next year — that’s not done in isolation. That’s not a game where it stands on its own [like the ‘Field of Dreams’ game],” he said, noting that like the Little League Classic, which MLB will stage in Williamsport, Pa., this month, international games can be relevant over and over because MLB’s marketing to geographic or demographic groups continues year after year.
Marinak said MLB is having conversations about other ways to tie event-style games in nontraditional venues to other areas in which it is trying to expand its reach. For example, a report in Ballpark Digest recently suggested that Bosse Field, the historic 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 pitched Hinchliffe Stadium in Paterson, N.J. — one of the last remaining stadiums to host Negro League games — as another appealing possibility.
MLB would not confirm those venues as potential sites and Marinak said that, as of Wednesday, it did not have firm plans for future games. But he acknowledged that venues like those — locations with strong baseball traditions — are the kind of places MLB would consider for events in the mold of, if not exactly like, what will happen in Dyersville on Thursday night.
“I have no doubt in the next handful of years we’ll have some of those type of games. We don’t have any firm plans on what that might be at this time, but we have active internal conversations about all sorts of ideas,” Marinak said.
“Outreach to the African American fan base, Negro League history is definitely an area where we look to improve our engagement. I can see a game that fits into that area. Something around women in baseball could be something that makes sense,” he added. “Or things around certain geographies, certain areas of the country that have rich baseball histories and trying to bring a game there to bring life to those.”
What may become clearer after Thursday’s game is exactly how much appetite baseball fans have for watching similar events when they are no longer unique. Though games in strange places are often likely to draw capacity crowds — tickets for last year’s “Field of Dreams” game were going for thousands of dollars on the secondary market — they are no sure thing to secure the same kind of national television interest when the stage is not so novel and when the participants are less famed than the vaunted Yankees and star-studded White Sox.
But Marinak said he isn’t worried about saturating the market with events like these, in large part because they take a great deal of effort and preparation to stage — even at a place where MLB has previously held an event.
“There’s only so many shoot-the-moon kind of ideas. But when you hit one, you want to hit on it, and certainly the ‘Field of Dreams’ has fit into that category,” he said. “I’m sure other ideas may surface in the coming years that fit that, and it’s a know-it-when-you-see-it thing.”