Another Step in Internationalization

Yesterday the Seattle Mariners named Don Wakamatsu as their new manager, the first Asian-American manager in MLB history.  This is a great story for MLB, as the league has really tried to enhance their international presence over the past few years.  The number of foreign-born players continues to increase, including from outside of North and Central America.  The World Baseball Classic was viewed as a big success and the next WBC is coming up in March.  The league also ran the China Series in Beijing this preseason and actually started the regular season in Japan.

MLB is not the only league making large strides in reaching an international audience.  The NHL started their regular season in Prague and Stockholm this year.  The NFL has had a regular season game in England each of the last two seasons.  The NBA had preseason games in China and Europe this year, and has an international department dedicated to developing the game and leagues in Europe and Asia.  I’m not even going to talk about soccer, which is the most international game of all (although I do believe that there were more international exhibitions with MLS teams this year than ever before).  Clearly the U.S. sports leagues have a global focus.  My question is, for which sport(s) does it make the most sense, and are the leagues doing it the right way?

I think that the NBA has the best international plans of four major leagues, at least at this point in time.  Their dedicated global offices have done a great job in promoting and developing the game internationally, and the increase in popularity has been tremendous.  We are not too far away from seeing NBA-managed leagues in other countries.   The NHL has more work to do, but they took a good first step this year with the Prague and Stockholm games.  The U.S. audience has not embraced hockey as much the last couple of seasons, but the game is very popular in Europe and Russia, so tapping into this audience is very important.  MLB has done a pretty good job with the first WBC, but there are still some kinks to work out logistically.  They also haven’t been able to really spread the game much beyond Asia and Central America. 

The NFL has probably done the worst job of the four, and the game just might not translate well internationally.  After all, every other country has their own game of “football.”  The regular season game in London is just a novelty at this point, and the NFL Europe was a complete failure.  The more interesting markets for the NFL to look at might be Mexico and Canada.  They had a great audience with their preseason game in Mexico City, and Canada has a long track record in football with the CFL. 

What do you think of the various international efforts the leagues have made recently?  Which sport has done the best/worst job?  What sport has the biggest needs internationally?  Let me know what you think in the comments, and please answer the poll question on the right.  Thanks!

3 thoughts on “Another Step in Internationalization

  • November 20, 2008 at 1:02 pm
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    You are so right about globalization leaking from the business world into the world of sports. Actually “leaking” might not be the right word, it may more accurately be said that the global environment of today’s economy and society is forcing itself upon sports. With television, internet and other technology, no industry can avoid to miss out on the profits to be made and the “fan base” to be reached overseas.

    In my travels the popularity of “futbol” has always amazed me. I have seen entire cities pause for two or three hours to watch a match. As well as internationalization is progressing in the world of soccer, I think the US still has a long way to go, largely due to the lack of popularity in the US relative to that of baseball or American football. On the whole, however, I think all sports leagues and organizations based in the US are doing a good job of moving toward a global worldview and business plan.

    Baseball, as you mentioned, is making great strides internationally. However there are regions of the world that are being left behind in this sport, and I believe the responsibility for this belongs to those who have developed baseball in the US. By building baseball as “America’s pastime,” the US has turned nations off to the sport. Through all the time I have spent in former soviet nations I have met many people who don’t want anything to do with the sport.

    All of this comes to the conclusion that internationalization of sport has to begin with marketing the idea of a sport internationally before actually moving that sport and its events overseas. The NHL game in Prague was a success because there was no need to market the idea of hockey to the Czechs. Baseball’s expansion into Asia is not a problem because Asians are already interested in baseball. NFL Europe was a flop because Europeans were not ready for American football, so the NFL’s efforts in moving one regular season game to London to market the NFL (as a novelty, as all new products are) may be the smartest move that any sports league is making these days.

  • November 20, 2008 at 4:07 pm
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    The National Hockey League has about 30% of its membership from Europe so has been ahead of the game for some time. There are elite professional leagues in most European countries making it easy to not only attract talent from those countries but to market the North American league overseas as well. However, there have still only been two European head coaches and neither lasted long. Currently the front offices of NHL clubs have Europeans primarily working within scouting positions as many former players return to work within, or run, the national federations or clubs of their native countries. This could change with some players seeking permanent residency in the US and Canada eventually, but at least there is a greater influence and integration of Europeans within the league as a whole than in the other major sports. In Asia, NY Islanders owner Charles Wang has a large initiative to build rinks and expand ice hockey within China (Project Hope) lead by Women’s USA Olympic Gold Medalist Angela Ruggiero and in countries such as Korea and Japan ice hockey has been growing rapidly since the Olympics there and with the former popularity of inline hockey. Hockey is also attractive in other parts of the world, there is a large ice hockey facility under construction in Dubai and there is an Israeli hockey team as well. Australia has a professional hockey league and nations in Africa are avid inline or roller hockey players. While ice hockey may seem like a niche sport it is likely the most geographically diverse in North America; represented by more countries than any other sport and potential to grow not only the audience but the talent pool.

  • November 24, 2008 at 11:39 am
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    Jessica and Fiona – thank you for your great comments. Clearly international development is a high priority for all four major U.S. leagues.

    On a related note, the NHL just announced a partnership with the Champions Hockey League (CHL) in Europe. You can read about it here:

    http://www.nhl.com/ice/news.htm?id=394108

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