- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 5, 2003

Just 12 years ago the NFL, the dominant entity in American sports, made its first major expansion beyond its home borders.
The original World League of American Football, now called NFL Europe, was small just three European franchises in London, Barcelona and Frankfurt, Germany, in a 10-team league. And the NFL's aims were rather small, too: showcasing American football to European fans and providing an outlet for young players not yet ready for the rigor and skill level of NFL play.
"We believe that at least for a couple more years the American Bowl [the NFL's annual overseas exhibition game] and the World League will be very complementary and will continue to expand interest in the sport," NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said modestly in 1991.
There is nothing modest now about the international business of American pro sports. Each of the four major U.S. sports leagues the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball is aggressively pursuing overseas revenues and foreign fans with militarylike precision and none of the trade embargo drama surrounding so many other industries. With TV ratings and attendance still largely stagnant within the United States, the foreign markets represent the fastest-growing sectors of each league's ledger and provide the most untapped economic potential.
"The formula is fairly simple," said Ken Yaffe, group vice president for the NHL's international division. "The foreign-born athletes realize that America is the pre-eminent place to play. Our league and the other leagues have reached a critical mass of players who are foreign-born, many of them top performers, and with them come a built-in fan base, a built-in fan affinity. We're seeing a large, straight-ahead mushrooming off of that."
Some of the key indicators of the global surge of U.S. pro sports are:
Chinese TV viewership of NBA games involving countryman Yao Ming, a first-year center for the Houston Rockets, routinely breaks the five million and 10 million household barriers, as much as 10 times the typical U.S. viewership for the same game.
The number of foreign-born players in each league is at or near an all-time high.
Dozens of Fortune 500 companies ranging from Coca-Cola to Nike use the four leagues as key instruments to reach tens of millions of consumers around the globe.
The four major leagues broadcast games and feature content into more than 225 countries, often in native languages and tailored specifically for a particular market.
Annual revenue for MLB International, fueled by licensing and broadcast contracts, has risen more than eightfold since 1989 to nearly $100 million a year.
The NBA now sells a fifth of all its licensed merchandise outside of the United States.
Overseas visits by American teams for both regular season and exhibition games also have skyrocketed. The NHL, NFL and NBA now make international exhibitions an annual tradition; the Steve Spurrier era with the Washington Redskins began last August with the 2002 American Bowl in Osaka, Japan. Major League Baseball goes a step further. It will open the 2003 regular season with two games in Japan between Oakland and Seattle, the third time in four years it will begin a season outside America. The Montreal Expos will play a quarter of its home schedule this coming season in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
"This is a long-term play for us no question," said Doug Quinn, head of the NFL's international division. "What we're doing is engaging in a very focused, concentrated effort to expand the game of football around the world."
A gold medal beginning
Few people, even those within the executive offices of the individual leagues, could have predicted the current global saturation of U.S. sports in the early 1990s. Latin American players were a fixture in baseball for more than a generation. Foreign-born stars, such as Finnish hockey player Jari Kurri, one-time sidekick to Wayne Gretzky, slowly changed the face of hockey. But aside from major events such as the Super Bowl, the rest of the globe remained largely the domain of big-time soccer and auto racing.
The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona changed much of that in just a matter of weeks. There, the original Dream Team marked the debut of pro players on the U.S. Basketball Team, which included Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and nine other stars at or near their professional peaks. The Dream Team stampeded to Gold Medal glory and the rest of the world couldn't get enough of the dazzling and widely televised showcase.
Soon enough, each of the leagues made greater overtures to overseas promoters, companies, retailers and broadcasters, all in the name of expanding exposure of their product. The NFL hit an early high-water mark in 1994 when 112,376 people, the NFL's largest crowd ever, showed up in Mexico City to see an exhibition game between the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers.
After a steady buildup of international business, two names have arguably eclipsed even the delirium of the Dream Team: Ichiro Suzuki and Yao Ming.
Ichiro, an outfielder for the Seattle Mariners, took the baseball world by storm in 2001. After a celebrated career in Japan, Ichiro led the Mariners to a record-setting 116-win season and in the process became the first player in 26 years to win the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards in the same year. Back in Japan, Ichiro's daily exploits were front-page news and pedestrians often stopped in front of electronics stores to catch a glimpse of Ichiro's latest at-bat.
Hideo Nomo, a Japanese star pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the mid-1990s, preceded Ichiro as MLB's first star player from Japan. But Ichiro won an MVP award, something Nomo never did, and is an everyday player unlike Nomo. Hideki Matsui, Japan's greatest slugger and newly signed outfielder for the New York Yankees, will use baseball's biggest stage to challenge Ichiro's track record.
"Ichiro literally changed our business in Japan," said Paul Archey, MLB's senior vice president of international operations. "Ichiro came in, and he was totally different than traditional Japanese players. His look was totally different. His style was totally different, a lot more modern. He had his own clothing and retail line. So not only did he bring Japanese fans, foreign fans to us, he also brought us teenagers here in the U.S."
Yao is doing almost the same thing, but his case is even more compelling. Japan has long been tied to American baseball and all of American commerce, but Yao is opening up the mammoth Chinese population to the NBA and its key sponsors in ways never before seen.
The Yao craze knows no limits to time, geography or media. Chinese fans, as much as 16 hours ahead of where the 7-foot-6 Yao is playing, turn their personal schedules upside down to watch his games live. The NBA is developing a Chinese-language version of its Web site, www.nba.com. The league also capitalized by signing contracts with more than a dozen Chinese broadcasters to showcase Yao in the native language. In total, more than 40 percent of visitors to www.nba.com live outside of the United States.
Corporations around the world have similarly jammed the phones of Yao's advisers seeking endorsement deals; no major pacts besides a pre-existing deal with Nike are in place. Yao's management team has enlisted students at the University of Chicago's business school for additional study and insight on marketing possibilities for the player.
"Yao Ming is not the first great international player we've had, but he is a very exciting international player, one that represents a very important country for us," said Andrew Messick, senior vice president of the NBA's international division. "China in particular, but really all of Asia are definitely areas of growing focus for us.
"[NBA Commissioner] David Stern is a big believer in the globality of our league. The fans are out there and we have a responsibility to get out there, and give them access to our league," Messick said.
The other leagues look upon the NBA with envy.
"We definitely want a Yao Ming, that kind of celebrity," the NFL's Quinn said. "But we're not there yet. We need more of a progression of [football] outside of the U.S."
Getting on the ground
For all the global marketing, merchandising and broadcasting, there remains one tried-and-true way to build a global fan base: play overseas. Each of the league's international games balloons from the one-day or one-night event it would be there into a multiday extravaganza of events, parties and sponsor exhibits.
"When we get off the plane and do an overseas game, it's a major event for that country," Archey said. "Places like Venezuela, Japan, it's essentially like an All-Star game here. It's a lot of work. It's lot of excitement. And, of course, it goes a long way to building lasting relationships in those countries."
Cities such as London, Mexico City and Paris are being talked about as potential homes for permanent franchises in U.S.-based leagues.
"What's the difference between a New York-to-L.A. flight and a New York-to-London one? Maybe an hour?" said David Baker, commissioner of the Arena Football League, which has sent many players to the NFL, including two-time NFL MVP Kurt Warner of the St. Louis Rams. "When you think about it in those terms, it opens up more possibilities."
Like All-Star games, the international contests are planned months and sometimes years in advance. A list of issues such as travel visas, arrangements for families, logistics for language translation and stadium contracts must be negotiated or arranged all issues that either don't apply or are already in place back in America.
"American Bowls are still very big deals for us, very important," Quinn said. "There's still very little substitute for actually going out to another place and directly connecting with the fans there."
Overseas challenges
Hard financial numbers have not been disclosed for the international divisions for each major sports league. However, league executives say those divisions are profitable, even though they are designed first and foremost as fan-development vehicles.
And much of the growth remains hard-won. For all the NFL's domestic might, for example, organized American football is not a mainstay of scholastic or amateur sports in much of the world. Ice hockey, similarly, sells in very few places south of the equator. Even baseball and basketball, sandlot fixtures around the globe, compete against dominant entities such as the English Premier League and German Bundesliga soccer.
"We can't develop a commercial business overseas without a solid foundation," Quinn said. "So that's why we're working with the amateur football federations, doing international flag football competitions, finding ways for the game to actually be played more. We do that, and we're in a much better position to move forward commercially."
The learning curve extends back to America, too. The arrival of Yao requires a continual dialogue among the Rockets, NBA offices, and Yao's interpreter and management team to handle the continuous crush of media requests, marketing calls and assimilation issues for the player. The Rockets and NBA, in turn, have done some of their marketing around Yao to include references to Chinese culture.
And then there is global tension. U.S.-based sports leagues run into almost no tariff or restricted trade issues. But fermenting political problems in Iraq, North Korea and elsewhere, as well as growing anti-U.S. sentiment in many parts of the globe, represent a hurdle in the league's global expansion.
"There are simply some places where we're not doing any local marketing," MLB's Archey said. "You want to be as local as possible while still being as broad as possible. But there are some places where it doesn't make sense to do that."
The future
Most sports industry analysts project international growth of U.S. pro sports to be nothing short of exponential. But the continued ride is dependent on two key factors: a sustained pipeline of talented foreign players and plenty of top-level global competition.
The talent pipeline is fairly easy, particularly as each of the four major leagues has an average salary above $1 million and assimilation into the American culture becomes ever easier.
"We're now entering an era of self-perpetuation," Messick said. "Kids in Germany looking up to [Dallas Mavericks basketball star] Dirk Nowitzki are now dreaming of playing in the NBA. The same goes for [Sacramento Kings guard] Peja Stojakovic and Yugoslavia and so on. That didn't necessarily happen before. Some of those kids will actually make the league, and they'll in turn bring another generation of fans."
The global competition, however, is a different story. The NHL allowed its players to compete in the 1998 and 2002 Winter Olympics. Future Olympics, however, are not a sure bet. Baseball remains loath to suspend its regular season in the summer to permit player participation in the Summer Olympics assuming baseball gets off the International Olympic Committee's endangered list and remains an Olympic sport. A long-discussed World Cup in baseball is an elusive prospect.
Even NFL Europe, the successful outgrowth of the World League of American Football, is not entirely on solid ground. Several NFL owners, including Tennessee's Bud Adams, publicly grumbled about the heavy costs involved in running the overseas operation. Significant operational changes to NFL Europe are possible later this year.
It's also imperative the U.S. leagues take care of business in America. The NHL, for one, is facing a likely work stoppage next year, something that would cripple all overseas business.
"I don't want to get into that, but it's certainly fair to say the success of the leagues domestically is a key driver of what we do internationally," the NHL's Yaffe said.

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