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The worldwide appeal of American sports

American sports are increasingly reaching audiences around the world. Next month, for example, the New England Patriots will play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in London, where “football” usually means soccer. Here, Andrew Rohm, associate professor of marketing at Northeastern, discusses the impact of marketing teams and athletes to an international audience. His research is published in leading academic and management journals, including Sports Marketing Quarterly.

What effect has marketing American sports to a global audience had on organizations such as Major League Baseball (MLB)?

The global marketing of American sports, particularly baseball, basketball, and now football, has had a significant impact on revenue streams. As these sports and players become more and more popular in Asian and European markets, international viewership increases and sales of licensed products associated with these sports and the players increase—namely shoes and apparel.

How are American sports and its athletes viewed in other countries?

Before MLB’s decision to play regular-season games in Japan, and before the World Baseball Classic (an international tournament among professional players from 16 countries around the world), leagues such as the National Basketball Association and the National Football League sought to establish a presence in China and Europe. For instance, when Reebok signed Shaquille O’Neal in the early 1990s, both the NBA and Reebok were surprised and delighted to find out that Shaq was viewed as a larger-than-life “athletic rock star” among Chinese fans. In China, sports marketing and sponsorships have grown into a $15 billion annual industry, which underlines the potential for American leagues and sports stars in these large and relatively untapped global markets.

In 2007, more than 200 million people in China tuned in to watch Chinese-born NBA superstar Yao Ming square off against fellow countryman and rookie sensation Yi Jianlian. Might we someday see an NBA team in China or, say, a MLB team in the Dominican Republic?

Hundred of millions of Chinese tuned into the 2008 Olympic basketball games on TV, and high-profile athletes such as Dwayne Wade were treated like royalty by fans and potential sponsors alike. The confluence of the sports’ popularity in markets such as China, the interest of global corporations in tapping into the country’s growing middle-class market, in addition to new revenue streams from ticket sales, broadcast rights and licensed product sales, will most likely result in some type of global team expansion in the near future.

How would a more global game affect traditional rivalries, like Red Sox-Yankees?

A more global game would only strengthen fan interest in rivalries among teams like the Red Sox and Yankees. Living in Europe in 2008, I was surprised by the numbers of Yankees hats I saw on people who most likely had never played, or seen, a game of baseball! Teams such as these hold significant cachet far beyond the U.S. market.

Few, if any, athletes have greater global appeal than golf’s Tiger Woods and soccer’s David Beckham. Could playing overseas benefit other superstar athletes?

Leagues have benefited, and will continue to benefit, from increased player exposure overseas. Case in point: apparel sales in China. Jerseys representing some of the top NBA players, including Lebron James and Dwayne Wade, already top those for Yao Ming. Moreover, the NBA’s Washington Wizards visited China this month to mark the 30-year anniversary of the league’s first tour of that country in 1979. So, there is significant potential for the leagues to increase the presence of their star players in these overseas markets.

In 2008, the NFL topped $7 billion in revenues; in 2007, Major League Baseball made more than $6 billion. How would attracting a more global audience impact pro sports’ bottom line?

Attracting a more global audience will only help the bottom-line of leagues such as MLB, NFL and NBA by promoting players, and in turn, promoting sales of licensed products and increased viewership of games broadcast in global markets.

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