By Jakob Fox
Historically, going abroad is common for many US college students, but has not been as much for the pro athletes. As we look ahead in the sports world, it is now time for the pros to take their talent abroad, with more and more teams and leagues making plans to play games outside of the United States and Canada. Within the last few months, the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA have all announced that they will be hosting upcoming games internationally. This is a growing trend that first started in the late 1970s when NBA teams traveled overseas to play exhibition games against international teams and has grown to now include preseason and regular season games taking place around the world. As the world continues to reopen post-COVID, it only makes sense that sports will continue to expand into the global market. International games provide many new opportunities for leagues that are already dominating their domestic markets and are looking to keep growing. With more companies continuing to get involved with sports, the value surrounding the industry continues to rise. These international games offer more exposure for sponsors, teams, and players to expand or build their brands. The question has changed from “Will teams go abroad this season?” to “When will your favorite team go abroad to play?”
Bringing these games abroad has provided plenty of exposure and introduced many people to the live action that we may take for granted at home. It is one thing for North American sports leagues to air their games internationally, but it is another for them to bring their product in person to fans across the world. Take hockey, for instance - many people don’t truly appreciate or enjoy the sport until they have gone to a game. This certainly was the case back in 2007 when the Los Angeles Kings played a few games with the Anaheim Ducks in Britain. Despite the overall lack of popularity for the sport across the pond, both games were sold out and the players and league were welcomed to the new location. The success of those games has allowed the NHL to continue their global push, and the league has now played regular season games in six different countries and preseason games in others. These games have left a larger impression on the cities and countries, opening up more opportunities for young kids to have access to play the sport.
Leagues like the NBA and NFL, which have dominance in the US but somehow still lack diversity on an international level, have the opportunity to grow even more when they participate in international events. The NBA has brought games to more than a dozen countries, with the United Arab Emirates being their next destination this fall. This globalization of the league helped inspire the current generation of international stars like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid to play. One of the many hopes with these games is to continue to foster interest in the sport that will lead to more international stars. The NBA has also set up different camps and development programs to keep expanding their player pool, while the NFL has explored having different cities adopt teams to grow fanbases in a second market. That is something that we have seen take place over the last several years with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags owner also owns the English soccer club Fulham, and as a result in 2012 they became the only NFL team to make a multi-year commitment to play overseas. Since then, they have played a game in London every year since 2013 (besides 2020 with the pandemic) and have become the fastest-growing fanbase of all teams in the UK. In 2018, their Union Jax UK fan club surpassed 80,000 members. This shows that by hosting a game in London every year, they have been able to foster this relationship better than other teams who have gone abroad only once or twice.
These international games serve many other purposes beyond just growing the sport and international fanbases. Games abroad are unlike other competitions that American fans may be accustomed to. For the fans of teams from the United States, these series can provide a travel destination to see their team play in a new venue with a different atmosphere. In tandem with hosting international games, the leagues also host activations to help provide larger opportunities for new and existing partners to reach fans. These activations can serve both as means to reach new fans and as a trial run to see what works. The sponsorship opportunities for these games have been huge. In the MLB, we have seen these international series serve as the perfect place to try out uniform ads, which will soon become the norm at home. These games also open up different sponsors to get their feet wet in a new sport. In 2019, MGM experienced their first activation with the MLB, when they were the title sponsor for the 2019 MGM MLB Opening Series in Japan. This helped serve as a springboard for the company which has continued to work in the baseball space.
On top of introducing their product to new fans and providing sponsors more opportunities to grow in different markets, these international games have served the players just as much. As we saw in The Last Dance, these international games provide players with different experiences including allowing them to see the world, grow their brand internationally, and sometimes even serve as a homecoming. For Nashville Predators defenseman Roman Josi, the upcoming preseason game in Bern, Switzerland will serve exactly that and more. He said “it's going to be really exciting, really emotional for me for sure...excited to go show the guys Bern a little bit. And a lot of people haven't seen me play in a long time.” For the team, it also gives the players the chance to bond, which is important at the beginning of a long and grueling season.
Overall, the upsides with these international games are numerous, even if it means losing out on a home game or two. The attention, spectacle, and opportunities that they provide have proven to help the teams, players, and leagues continue to grow. As we see leagues expand their reach, the only question that remains is “Who will take advantage of going abroad the most?”