Baseball, the Red Sox, and the (Swedish) Innovation Economy


The Baseball World Cup qualification series started this week over here in Sweden, as well as in several other countries in Europe. South Korea, Canada, the Dutch Antilles, and Sweden will meet each other at a field in the Stockholm suburb Sundbyberg. The finals will take place at the end of the month in Italy.

Since baseball lost its place in the Olympic Games, the world championship is supposed to be the most important international baseball event, even if you Americans are more interested in your not-so-global World Series. Even though I root for the home team, I have to admit that Sweden’s chances are slim against both Canada and the big favorite, South Korea. To be honest, what else could you expect when the game is a very small sport in a small country, with just over a thousand registered players. (The actual Swedish expression is “licensed players;” you have to register for a license to get insurance during the games.)

To give a sense of proportion for those of you who are used to the lines outside Fenway Park; the venue in Sundbyberg normally seats just 100 spectators, although it’s been upgraded with temporary bleachers during the championship to 2,436 seats.

Baseball is just a newcomer on the Scandinavian sports scene, with teams trying to recruit players, fans, and financing, and facing fierce competition from well-established team sports like soccer and ice hockey. (Even though Boston author Robert Skole has written a baseball fantasy novel in which an American bomber crew introduces the game to Sweden during WW2.)

In my opinion, the situation for the fledgling baseball league in Sweden mirrors the challenges facing start-ups and entrepreneurs everywhere. You have a great new idea, maybe even a developed product, and you’re convinced of its great qualities, but now you have to get it out on the market and convince the general public of it merits. And that’s no easy task when it comes to sports.

We, as fans, are deeply conservative. We like the games we grew up with, the ones we played ourselves. And there are huge cultural barriers; American football will never threaten rugby in popularity in Great Britain, and vice versa.

Still, there are examples of new sports making significant inroads into new markets. Like ice-hockey, which today is the second-most popular team sport in Scandinavia.

From an entrepreneurial perspective, hockey’s success has a simple explanation: it originally grew by exploiting a gap in the market. In other words, you can play hockey in the winter, when the soccer fields were covered with deep snow. And then there’s floorball, invented in the early 1980s and today one of the world’s most popular ball sports. Evidently, there was a demand for a fast game with fewer players on each side than a full soccer team.

So what are the odds for success for Swedish baseball entrepreneurs? To answer the question, I decided to cross-check my thoughts against some of the words used to describe the corporate culture of successful startups that were cited by CEOs in some recent Xconomy articles.

Here is my analysis:

—“Magical” and “vibrant”—No, not really at this stage. Maybe, if Sweden beats the Dutch Antilles and manages to continue to the next level in the championships.

—“Humble”—There’s nothing humble in hosting a world championship when you’re ranked 26th. I like that.

—“Competent”—If that were the case, you wouldn’t be in the 26th spot on the ranking list.

—“Passionate”, “energetic”, “focused”—Yes, yes, yes. What else can you say about guys who have regular day-time jobs and still find time to train and play baseball 20 hours a week. “Obsessed,” maybe.

Erik Mellgren is a Swedish journalist who worked for Xconomy Boston in 2008 as part of the Stanford Innovation Journalism Fellowship program. His real job is with Ny Teknik, a leading technology and innovation magazine in Sweden, but he loved seeing the Red Sox at Fenway. Follow @

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3 responses to “Baseball, the Red Sox, and the (Swedish) Innovation Economy”

  1. Mr Punch says:

    The “ecological niche” issue — e.g., ice hockey’s success because there was not another winter team sport) is the key. And it’s related to climate: American summers are often too hot for football in its various forms.

    Incidentally, American football and rugby, along with Canadian and Australian Rules football, are versions of the same game. The real trade-off is rugby-type (hands)games vs. association football (soccer – no hands).