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As sports access goes global, which teams — in which sports — will win the race to be worldwide superbrands?

The Vectors of Global Brand Building

Yes, winning drives global recognition. (With 11 championships, the Lakers are by far the most popular basketball team in the world.) But if you’re not hoisting trophies regularly, how can you grow your audience worldwide?

Hire international players

Asian baseball stars in the MLB like Masahiro Tanaka and Yu Darvish generate fan interest back home. Twenty-six percent of the players in the NHL are from outside North America, which drives interest in the league across Northern Europe. The question is, which American sports league will move the most quickly to integrate players from Asia, Europe and South America?

Market rivalries

Everywhere in the world, people understand the significance of rivalries. These monumental matches become a war of ideas, history, and lifestyle. Lakers vs. Celtics. Red Sox vs. Yankees. Bruins vs. Canadiens. Barcelona vs. Real Madrid. All Blacks vs. Springboks in rugby. India vs.Pakistan in cricket. Teams battle for supremacy of their state, their metropolitan area, their country. Since everyone can relate, these matchups make sense to even casual fans across the oceans.

Tour and tour some more

The MLB has hosted regular season games in Japan, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Australia. The NFL goes to London. European soccer tours the US in the summer. Exhibition games and international friendlies go a long way — especially if a team makes the trip several years in a row.

Sell team values

  • Seattle embraced grunge music, then premium coffee, then made same-sex marriage and pot legal. So the city that loves being “alternative” is a perfect fit for the alternative sport, soccer. Sounders FC attendance has broken all US records.
  • Working-class teams with “lunchpail” players may seem less relevant in an era when fewer workers are blue collar. But hiring hardworking players and emphasizing solidarity and gritty defense still fits historic working-class cities — even abroad, from Newcastle to Marseille to Dortmund to Turin.

Pimp the stars

Even if his team has a losing record, a single star player can help a team get global recognition. Star players are a vector by which small-market teams and upstart leagues (like Major League Soccer) can gain international renown. Stars who cross borders have an elevated global appeal.

Be larger than life

In the cosmopolitan cities, the lifestyle of celebrity culture can be embraced as an escape from it all. Players’ and owners’ big personalities and opulent lifestyles can be highlighted to draw the fans whose appetite for the rich and famous is endless.

Predicting the Future

1-5 Years

The Tinkering Phase

Globalization continues to happen more slowly than expected. During its exhibition season, the NBA champion plays in a one-week Club World Championship against the top teams of Europe. The NHL All-Star Game is played in Russia. London and Mexico City are granted NFL franchises — but not to start play until 2028.

5-10 Years

The First Disruption

Some rules standardize internationally — Japanese baseball adopts the larger MLB ball, while European basketball adopts NBA rules. These have a similar effect to standardizing the width of rail lines and the size of shipping containers — it makes global player movement possible. The NFL opens in London and Mexico, but by the time it finally happens, it’s almost anticlimactic. Then, an unexpected, seminal disruptive event happens. It could be any number of things. But it creates a significant global shift in professional sports. Some possibilities:

  • During a future labor contract strike, NBA players stay sharp playing in China, earning double what they’d make here; many end up staying, splitting the NBA’s talent pool.
  • To prevent brain trauma, NFL rules on tackling change radically, prompting an increasing number of rugby stars to make the transition to American football. The NFL’s popularity booms in Oceania and Europe.
  • Scoring in soccer becomes so rare that the game’s appeal plummets, creating an opportunity for other sports to expand into soccer’s territory, winning over fans with more scoring and action.
  • Taking advantage of genomic screening or medical manipulation, China starts cranking out superathletes who are faster and stronger than athletes in the rest of the world. (See The Athlete)
10-25 Years

Global Consolidation

Intercontinental or global leagues fully develop. Even though any one team’s players might be from many countries, the games take on that nation-vs.-nation excitement we know from the Olympics and World Cup. Extensive alliances are created to minimize business risk and control player development and movement to the superteams. Eventually, these coalesce across sports; superclubs in major global cities have pro teams in each viable sport.

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