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!