Major League Sports Gamble on World Domination
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because fish-and-chips fit perfectly in a two-gallon plastic football helmet.
Berlin, 2035. Hours after crawling out of the final nightclub of a long evening, somewhere in Friedrichshain, a crew of Mexico City supporters on holiday search for pregame kebabs. Thanks to one man’s friendly Neuralink, they’re soon chomping on delectable döner, waving the homeland’s colors in the face of an unfortunately placed Berlin supporter.
Global hooliganism of the future? You bet. Soccer? No chance. Transatlantic expansion of the National Football League is near.
Circling back to 2017, a seismic shake-up of the global sports landscape is underway. Videos of breakout stars stream across the globe, Ajax Amsterdam fans in Seattle place real-time wagers while watching the match and more than $150 million of the National Basketball Association’s annual revenue comes from China. With so much access to sports at our fingertips, major leagues are christening foreign lands with community education programs to foster tangible connections. The world is getting smaller, and sports leagues are about to become incredibly grandiose.
Youth education is the most important aspect of introducing a sport to new cultures.
David Niu, president, North American Super 7s Rugby League
With regard to global expansion, international “friendlies” and sporadic regular season games have been played by some of the major leagues in previous decades. But it was really the NFL’s International Series, beginning in 2007, that laid the foundation for near-guaranteed intercontinental expansion truly. Next season, a record five NFL games will be played abroad. In its inaugural Mexico City game last season, the NFL generated a $43 million bump in domestic and international tourist spending, according to a study by the Ernst & Young Sports Industry group. The NFL’s London trips enjoy similar success. “The demand for teams to go [to London] far exceeds the number of games we are playing now,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told the media last year in Jacksonville. “We don’t have to push teams to go now; they want to go. I actually believe a franchise in London is realistic.”
Of course, as former collegiate lineman turned European Football League professional Greg Conti tells OZY, money should not be a league’s only concern when breaking new ground. “The NFL would be smart to lend support to the local leagues,” says Conti. “Send young coaches over to develop talent. If the NFL tries to just come in and compete against soccer, I’m not sure it can work.”
The NBA has followed that game plan. The association partnered in 2001 with the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) to launch Basketball Without Borders, which has hosted clinics on six continents. And, during the past nine months, the NBA has opened four youth-training academies in China, Senegal and India, with plans for a fifth, in Australia. “We’re going to focus not just on the game of basketball, but we’ll be training young athletes holistically to be complete players,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced at a press conference in May.
When the Los Angeles Dodgers opened Major League Baseball’s first youth camp in the Dominican Republic in 1987, even the most optimistic scouts could not have foreseen the flood of Dominicans entering the big leagues. Before 1987, only 100 Dominicans had made it to MLB. Today, all 30 clubs have camps on the island nation, and nearly 500 prospects are signed per year.
“Youth education is the most important aspect of introducing a sport to new cultures,” says David Niu, Australian-American rugby legend and new president of the North American Super 7s Rugby League. “If people can’t grasp the nuances of a game, they tend to turn away from it.” When Niu first came to the U.S., in 1993, rugby fandom was far from generational. “Men in their mid-20s were playing, but the children weren’t coming through,” Niu tells OZY. “Now, rugby is going through a phenomenal growth phase.” Since 2010, American rugby participation has increased by 43 percent — second to lacrosse — with the most growth of any sport in the 18-to-24 demographic.
Another reason for rugby’s rise stateside is the developing path for success. Acceptance by schools and universities now means that young players can land on a college roster or maybe even bag a scholarship. When the Super 7s — a more fast-paced, exciting style of rugby that Niu believes is perfect for football-crazed American culture — begin league play in July 2018, that bar will be raised even higher. “The 7s present a realistic professional future in America,” says Niu.
But the question remains: Does the novelty of circus acts like NFL games in London appeal more than the sport itself? Niu and Conti both agree that developing successful skill players — football quarterbacks, say — could arouse mass interest in a sport. Would a British Heisman Trophy call to action every youth in Twickenham? It’s likely.
As leagues like Major League Soccer and the Chinese Super League — whose top talent are, typically, high-priced internationals — continue to cultivate young talent, and as foes like the NFL and the NBA establish intercontinental outposts, a more assertive global strategy is sure to follow. Soon, might we see regular-season competition between MLS and England’s Premier League? If a transatlantic soccer league starts to compete with a transatlantic NFL for the hearts and eyes of fanatics, who wins the quest for global domination? The original footballers might reclaim the sport’s name once and for all.
In the interim, fans will wait for what we know is near. We’ll cheer as international baseball players star in MLB. We’ll use two-gallon plastic Jaguars helmets to cradle fish-and-chips in London. And perhaps we’ll even ride Eurorail in search of games. “Football is growing in Germany, Austria, Italy,” says Conti. “It’s sort of a hipster sport right now.”