You are currently viewing the printable version of this article, to return to the normal page, please click here.

Baseball striking out with Israelis

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 10, 2007

TEL AVIV — America's national pastime is a foreign curiosity to Israeli sports fans — there is no Hebrew equivalent for home run — but founders of the Israel Baseball League are confident they can establish native-born fans.

With attendance sagging after the first two weeks, sometimes below 100 fans a game, organizers say they taking the long view.

The attendance has been less than what we had hoped for, but what we should have expected, said IBL Commissioner Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, who estimated 75 to 250 fans at games after upward of 3,000 came to Opening Day on June 24.

These are normal start-up issues, he said.

Organizers are marketing the game as a family-oriented alternative to the overly rowdy atmosphere of soccer and basketball, where fans can get violent and sometimes express their enthusiasm by setting off smoke bombs.

But first, Israeli baseball must boost attendance with its natural audience — immigrants from North America.

The United States has successfully exported baseball throughout Latin America and the Pacific Rim, but despite Israelis' affinity for all things red, white and blue — including billions a year in foreign aid — baseball faces significant hurdles if it is to survive in the Middle East.

A key obstacle to building interest in the game is a lack of playing facilities. Before the advent of the league, Israel had only one proper baseball field. A second has since opened, and league organizers are hoping that a field in Tel Aviv will open soon.

The lack of diamonds has forced game cancellations, squeezed practice sessions and made Little League competition impossible.

I am under no illusions that this is going to be an overnight success, said Boston businessman and league founder Larry Baras. Overnight is like 20 years.

With some of the down-home entertainment and intimacy of minor league baseball, league officials hope to sell the small-town carnival atmosphere as a family-friendly alternative to sitting amid rowdy soccer fans.

In Israel, you don't bring your kids to a soccer or basketball game because its not family friendly, Mr. Kurtzer said. There are smoke bombs going off. It's just too loud.

The six-team baseball league plays a schedule of about four dozen games a season.

The former ambassador said he hopes attendance will get a boost now that schools have let out for the summer and a seasonal surge in tourism is expected.

Amid an Opening Day crowd, children sought autographs from no-name players who looked more like big brothers than pros.

Can the regular season live up to league officials' initial goals of 1,200 fans a game and even make it to the next season?

Mr. Kurtzer said there's a commitment from league investors for a second season, but they will want to see revenue rise.

That highlights the key question of whether the native-born Israelis will ever embrace the game.

It looks like Jewish summer camp, said an Israeli spokeswoman for an American organization in Tel Aviv who declined to be identified. It can succeed if there's good PR. Israelis know baseball from American-made movies.

Avi Joseph, a Pittsburgh native and a Pirates fan, said he mentioned the baseball league to work colleagues, and they weren't interested.

They said, 'It's nothing we can relate to. It's not our game,' he said. They've adopted many things from America, but adopting baseball will take some time.

Mr. Baras said he got the idea amid the grandmothers and balloon hats at a Brockton, Mass., minor league game.

It just occurred to me to take what I"m experiencing and transform it to Israel, he said.

I went to a soccer game here and it was all men, and it was all cursing, fighting and sunflower seeds. I said, 'Let's make baseball a game that the mothers are going to want to come to.'

The games are being broadcast on Sunday nights on Channel 5, Israel's all-sports station.

Yaron Talpaz, vice president for programming at the station, said he was skeptical when the baseball league officials first approached him about a broadcast venture.

Israelis don't know anything about baseball, he said. Israelis, when they think about sports, it"s a war. When you go to a game, it's not to have a good time. It's to win. The whole culture of sports is not just to have fun.

It's like college football or basketball — its like Michigan-Ohio State.