For Kash Shaikh, November cannot come quickly enough.
The Chairman and CEO of Baseball United, the first professional league dedicated to baseball in the Middle East and Asia, last week signed partnership with the Emirates Cricket Board ahead of the organization’s competitive launch in five months’ time.
Things are steadily falling into place for the Dubai-based league.
Baseball United’s first showcase will involve four franchises facing off in four games, before an eight-team league follows a year later.
“It’s exciting for us,” Shaikh told Arab News while in Dubai. “It’s historic for Baseball United, it’s historic for professional baseball. It’s historic for sport within the region, because for the first time ever, we were able to receive sanctions that no other international organization has ever received. In our partnership with Emirates Cricket Board, we received a 15-year term to host, lead and develop baseball at the professional level, all the way down to the youth level in the UAE.
“We’re really excited for Abu Dhabi and Dubai to be the foundation for professional baseball within the Middle East.”
Initially, Baseball United’s team rosters will be packed with established international players, but the agreement opens the door to developing regional talent in the coming years.
“I’m really grateful to the ECB, including the chairman, Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak Al-Nahyan, (and) Vice Chairman Khalid Al-Zarooni, for their vision, and their belief and their support. Because a big part of that has been how we can grow with the game at the youth level here in (the) UAE. How we can help young kids get inspired about the game, how we can help young kids get more active by creating and introducing a new sport in the region that’s aspirational to them.”
There are plans to establish development and talent programs in India and Pakistan, as well as across Gulf Cooperation Council nations, where Shaikh has, over recent weeks, been meeting high-ranking sports and government officials in order to get support for Baseball United.
“It’s been amazing the amount of excitement and momentum that we’ve been able to build over the last just few weeks within the GCC,” he said. “Everything really started to accelerate with Baseball United, when we announced our first franchise, the Mumbai Cobras, a little over a month ago. And then we announced the second franchise, the Karachi Monarchs, and with each announcement things got bigger and bigger. After Karachi, we made a strategic decision to really engage the right leadership and the right organizations across the GCC.
“We went to Saudi Arabia and spent four days in Riyadh, where we met with the Saudi Arabia Baseball and Softball Federation. Amazing team, they’re led by Abdulrahman (Alshehri), who’s the CEO. The Saudi federation is the only baseball federation in the region, in (the) GCC. But they’re the youngest in the world, they were formed in 2019. So they have a lot of the foundational elements of strategy, goals focus — where we are going to partner with them and help them is on the technical side, on the training side, and on the growth side, even with everything from marketing to content partnerships.”
In Doha, Shaikh met with the committee that organized the 2022 FIFA World Cup, as well as with the Ministry of Youth and Sport, Bein Sports and the Qatar Little League. Six of the stadiums used at the World Cup could be retro-fitted and used for baseball.
“Obviously we had a lot of traction here in Dubai and Abu Dhabi,” he added. “We met with investment funds, with brand sponsors, with the right government officials, and had a lot of support from the ECB throughout all that.”
Among Baseball United’s growing list of investors and endorsers are former stars like Felix Hernandez, Adrian Beltre, Mariano Rivera, Barry Larkin and Albert Pujols, as well as Elvis Andrus, an active player with the Chicago White Sox.
The project’s progress continues to generate buzz across the baseball world.
“It’s crazy,” Shaikh said, “and it’s surreal, how many people not only know about what we’re building, but are excited about it. (Last weekend) Major League Baseball was playing international games in London, part of their London series, which they do once a year, and so many players have called me from London — current investors as well as people that want to come in, saying ‘guys, Baseball United is the talk of the town’.”
With that comes immediate responsibility, says Shaikh.
“The expectations are high, the bar is high,” he said. “We have a lot of pressure to deliver. But we welcome that opportunity because the eyes of the baseball world will be on us in November.”
Shaikh is clear that, as a start-up, Baseball United is not looking to compete with Major League Baseball, but will aim to give regional audiences a unique experience, and will look to keep growing in the coming years.
Joining the Mumbai Cobras and Karachi Monarchs in November’s showcase will be two as yet unnamed franchises from the GCC.
“I can tell you that the first two Middle Eastern professional baseball franchises in history are going to come from the UAE,” he said. “I’m excited that Abu Dhabi and Dubai are gonna have that honor, because this country has been such a foundational birthplace for so many sports in the region. The leadership of the UAE has been passionate about growing sports. The visionaries that drive this country have always known that when you have a society that’s vibrant and connected with sports, it helps grow the country.”
The two new teams could be announced as early as July.
“When we launch these two UAE teams, and people see the jerseys and see the hats and it becomes real, and people have teams they can then root for, I’m telling you, it’s going to take things to another level and I can’t wait (for) when that happens.”