DUBAI: For Kash Shaikh, it is all about “bringing people together.”
It, in this case, is the monumental task of bringing professional baseball to the Middle East and South Asia. He described it as “baseball diplomacy.”
Chairman and chief executive officer of Baseball United, the first-ever professional baseball league focused on the Middle East and Indian subcontinent, Shaikh told Arab News: “For us, me, and everyone on our leadership team, we’re all lifelong baseball fans.
“We’ve been connected to the game, either as executives or players or fans, for really our whole life. We have a collective 500 years of baseball experience within our leadership team.
“About a year-and-a-half ago, we all came together with this idea, this vision to grow the game of baseball. And as we were thinking through the potential opportunities with the game, what we realised pretty quickly was that the biggest opportunity for growth was international. And the best place for that growth would be the Middle East and South Asia, for a few reasons.”
He referred to his target region as “the epicenter of bat and ball sports,” with more than 1 billion cricket fans.
Shaikh said: “It’s also a region that’s fully embracing sport and investing in sport. Dubai, and the UAE is a big example, so too is Saudi Arabia, Qatar, obviously, and other countries throughout the region.
“And it’s a region where this is a completely white-space opportunity from a business and a brand-building standpoint. There are no professional baseball leagues in the region, we’re the first, and there’s not much professional baseball and baseball infrastructure at all within the region.
“There are passionate people who love the game though. There are kids who have tools and talent, there are coaches who want to teach, there are federations speckled across the region that have been working really hard for decades, but just haven’t got the resources, the funding, and the support that are necessary to grow. We call those nations, the forgotten nations of baseball,” he added.
There are currently 141 members of the World Baseball Softball Confederation, the sport’s governing body. Most of those beyond the top 30 were considered among the so-called forgotten nations. “That’s our constituency,” he said.
“The fan base is there, people don’t realise there’s actually over 50 million avid baseball fans within the region close, to 60 million avid baseball fans in that region. That’s more avid baseball fans than we have in the United States right now. So, it’s a huge, huge opportunity.”
When it came to picking a base of operation for the new project, Shaikh opted for a location he had become familiar with over the years.
“Dubai is amazing. The leadership is amazing. The government vision is inspiring. When the UAE and Dubai get behind sport, it really step-changes the engagement across the region.
“We’ve seen what has happened with golf in the region. We’ve seen what’s happened with MMA, we’ve seen what’s happened with F1. And actually, there are more avid baseball fans than there are avid golf fans, MMA fans, or F1 fans in the region.
“Everything about Dubai, the infrastructure, the leadership, the innovation, the beauty of the city, was what drew us to the city,” he added.
Shaikh was born in Houston, Texas to a father from Mumbai and a mother from Islamabad. After attending The University of Texas at Austin — where he founded the first ever South Asian fraternity in the US — he worked for American multi-national corporation Procter and Gamble for 10 years, and had a stint with GoPro, before going on to start several successful businesses of his own.
His career allowed him to spend long stretches of time in the Middle East region.
Getting Baseball United off the ground has been far from easy, but Shaikh pointed out that he had the right partners to make it a success.
He said: “I’m grateful for the partners we have on the ground. We’ve got a great, great relationship with the Sports Council, we’ve got a great relationship with Dubai Sports City. And we wouldn’t be able to do this without them.”
Already two franchises have been established, the first being the Mumbai Cobras and the second — following recent talks with the Pakistan Federation Baseball — the Karachi Monarchs. Once the last two of the initial group of four are named, eyes will turn to Dubai in November.
“We’re starting in November, with our first four franchises playing a Showcase event in Dubai. Nov. 5 through 12, we’re calling Baseball Week in Dubai. And we’ll have a series of different events that are going to be exciting for fans and for people within the region that we’re going to announce soon. That week will culminate on Nov. 10 through 12, with the Showcase.”
The action, involving four matches, will take place at the 25,000-capacity Dubai International Stadium, one of cricket’s homes in the UAE.
“If we can get 5,000 people in the stands, we’re going to be doing great. We’ll probably be setting records for leagues,” he added.
The next big landmark date after that for Baseball United will be November 2024, when an eight-franchise league will be launched in Dubai.
Shaikh noted that 800 players, from 30 countries, currently on Baseball United’s database had been vetted and scouted, with 200 already notified that they had made the list to potentially to play in the Showcase in November, as well as in 2024’s Season 1.
He said: “We have some of the best players from Finland, some of the best players from the Dominican Republic, we have some of the best players from the Far East, coming to play in the league. We have some really exciting former Major League Baseball players too, and that’s going to be cool when announced. So, we have those as the core.”
The next step in terms of rosters will be to introduce local talent, whether from existing national teams, or through grass-roots projects and training programs in the region — starting with India and Pakistan and then expanding into the Middle East.
“We’re going to be in Saudi Arabia (in June) meeting with the federation there, so I’m really excited,” Shaikh added.
An array of baseball stars past and present have in recent months backed Baseball United, not just through endorsements, but by investing their own money in the project. Among them are Felix Hernandez, Adrian Beltre, Mariano Rivera, and Barry Larkin, as well as Elvis Andrus, still an active player with the Chicago White Sox.
“There’s no way we could have done this without our Major League Baseball legends who’ve come on board. They’ve added credibility, they’ve driven excitement. And they have also ensured that the culture of the organization is focused on not just building a business and making money, but helping people, inspiring people, building community, and changing culture, all those things that I’ve been passionate about.
“They’re calling me all the time asking what’s up, what’s next?”
Shaikh was a big sports fan growing up in Texas and played basketball through college, and he has carried his experiences into his career, in particular the new venture.
He said: “It’s a fascinating thing. I run my businesses, including Baseball United, our team, our culture, we run it like a sports team.
“We have a culture that’s about camaraderie and accountability and discipline. I feel really blessed because I played team sports my whole life, I’m passionate about it.”