By playing regular-season games abroad, American professional teams are courting worldwide audiences and the financial boost those games bring
The Boston Celtics' preseason wins in Rome and London won't count come playoff time, but how the team played among European fans and media could mean a lot for American professional sports as US leagues look overseas for growth.
Pro leagues from the United States have been staging exhibitions in Europe and Asia for decades, but they have all become much more aggressive about their marketing. The National Hockey League opened its regular season this month in London. The National Basketball Association sent four teams to Europe and two teams to China this fall for exhibition games. Major League Baseball hosted the first ever World Baseball Classic last year, allowing its players to appear for their national teams during the two-week tournament. And the National Football League is playing its first regular-season game outside of North America today when the Miami Dolphins meet the New York Giants at London's Wembley Stadium.
Owners of pro teams faced with the challenge of raising ever-more revenue to pay for ever-increasing salaries are eyeing new fans overseas and the big-money media and sponsorship deals they bring with them as their next frontier.
"There's a clear belief that globalization is a goal for our league and for all sports," said Mark Waller, the senior vice president of NFL International.
Boston's teams, because of their well-known brands and traditions of success, are playing a big role in how American professional leagues export their sports, participating in games, sending executives to live in foreign countries, and sending players to meet fans overseas. The Patriots, Red Sox, and Bruins all have owners or executives who are shaping their respective league's international strategies.
The Patriots were supposed to play in the NFL's first-ever exhibition game in China in September. When the league postponed that game until 2009, the Patriots stayed the course, sending starting tight end Benjamin Watson to China for a week in July to get familiar with fans there.
The Patriots also are the only NFL team with a full-time employee working in China. Nicholas Krippendorf, the Patriots' director of Chinese business development, moved to China in September and spends his time trying to help fan clubs there organize gatherings, handing out team-produced videos wherever he goes and making initial contact with media and prospective sponsors to lay the groundwork for the Patriots should they eventually play there in two years.
"There's so much opportunity here in growing numbers of fans that it just made sense for me to move," he said.
Red Sox chief executive officer Larry Lucchino is on baseball's seven-member international committee, which is considering opening-day games in Japan and Latin America next season. Lucchino said the Sox, who acquired pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka from a Japanese team this year, will decide whether to play in that country after this season ends, pending a deal with a promoter overseas.
Boston Bruins owner Jeremy M. Jacobs chairs the National Hockey League's board of governors and had a hand in planning its two season-opening games in London this month. That game was played at the O2 Arena, a facility built by Anschutz Entertainment Group, owners of the Los Angeles Kings.
The Bruins didn't have a stake in the London hockey match, but Jacobs' Delaware North Cos. should profit when the NFL's Miami Dolphins face the New York Giants today at London's Wembley Stadium. Delaware North handles concessions at the stadium.
Jacobs said the NHL might consider setting up a sister league in Europe in the future, though nothing is currently planned. For now, playing overseas gives the league an immediate financial boost, he said.
"Your collateral businesses will do well there, your shirts and all your paraphernalia," Jacobs said. "The league will profit by their exposure over there over time. It will make our televised product more valuable to them over there." Not that the teams who play in overseas games don't make out well; they'll walk off with a guaranteed amount of revenue that's slightly above what they would make for their average home game.
NHL teams may be in the best position among clubs in any sport to get a financial boost from playing games overseas, since, baseball, basketball, and football have revenue-sharing rules that distribute the cash throughout the league. When the Dolphins and Giants play in London, for example, they will get the same amount from the games as the other 30 teams in the NFL, even as those teams go about their normal schedules in the states.
The Dolphins-Giants game will be the NFL's second international regular-season game and, with all 88,000 seats sold out, should be second in attendance in league history to only the 2005 contest between the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City.
The NFL's strategy to capitalize on its new audience is indicative of how all the leagues are proceeding internationally: Draw new fans by playing games overseas, then make money by selling to new sponsors and negotiating media deals to reach new audiences.
"It starts with growing the popularity of the sport with fans," said the NFL's Waller. "That leads you to broader media coverage, more digital media, more ability to physically attend games and, ultimately, why not a franchise?"
The leagues won't say how much they're making overseas, but they seem to have found a sweet spot among sponsors, broadcast, and Internet partners. The NFL's London game is sponsored by Bridgestone Corp., Reebok International Ltd., General Motors Corp.'s Chevrolet, Coors Light, a unit of Coors Brewing Co., Visa Inc., and Canon Inc. The NHL plans to launch a new service to let European fans watch games live over the Internet via a deal with North American Sports Network, a company that streams American sports to other nations.
The NBA lined up 34 sponsors for its preseason games in Europe and two upcoming regular-season games in China. Among them were foreign companies like Turk Telekom, a Turkish phone company, which advertised with the NBA for the first time during the preseason.
And because of Matsuzaka, the Red Sox were responsible for a new wave of sponsorship by Japanese companies, like men's spa chain Dandy House, which bought ads inside US ballparks where the Sox were playing, hoping to grab a piece of the TV audience back home.
"There's immediate opportunity" overseas, Lucchino said.
Keith Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.