American professional sports continue to bridge gaps in the international market, both as television deals expand and athletes take to their roles as global ambassadors. PRWeek spoke to international executives from the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and National Basketball Association, to see how PR is factoring into that growth.
If anyone doubted the global appeal of American sports, one Newsday article changed that. On May 29, 2006, Newsday reported that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had met with executives from the four major North American sports leagues (the NFL, MLB, NBA, and National Hockey League) to discuss their role in promoting American culture abroad and improving international relations. An executive from one of the leagues confirmed the meeting took place, but none of the participants would discuss the particulars.
It is unclear how the Bush administration wishes to leverage professional sports for global relations, but it may have picked an appropriate vessel, as American sports continue to roll out global initiatives and attract fans overseas.
Baseball fans have long upbraided MLB for ironically calling its league championship (for which only American and Canadian teams can compete) the World Series. But the MLB painstakingly built out a preseason tournament this year, called the World Baseball Classic, that featured MLB and amateur stars from 16 nations competing for national pride. The games drew 750,000 fans, according to the MLB.
"Before the first pitch, there was a lot of negative press about it being an exhibition… but from the first pitch, it was clear this was a competition," says Paul Archey, MLB International SVP. "I think the passion of the fans is what fueled that."
The success underscored a reality pervading American-based sports: Foreign-born players are increasingly getting involved in American sports and positively impacting the games. Likewise, the leagues are reaching out to international markets for more viewers, more merchandise revenue, and a larger fan base. A full 28% of 2006 MLB players were born outside of the US.
"Just like any other business, as you mature and saturate in certain markets, you want to expand," Archey says. "Having 28% of our players born outside the US is a great asset to have to help do that."
The NBA likewise has a strong contingent of foreign players, and the NFL maintains a European league.
Terry Lyons, NBA VP of international communications, says that basketball has long been an international game.
"When you compare the sports, there are really two global sports: football (or soccer) and basketball," Lyons says. "They're played everywhere and everyone knows the rules. That's something that we recognized very early in the process."
Lyons adds: "The sport is so engrained in so many people's lives."
Not only is basketball a truly global sport, international players are increasingly becoming the most heralded stars in the league. Four of the top 15 players in the NBA, as decreed by the All-NBA team, come from outside of continental US: Steve Nash (Canada), Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Tim Duncan (US Virgin Islands), and Yao Ming (China). This year's number one draft pick was an Italian center named Andrea Bargnani.
The NFL has also pursued global initiatives. Last year, the league held its first regular season game outside of the US, in Mexico City. The NFL has held 40 American Bowls – international preseason games – since 1986.
"We continue to see an overwhelming interest in the National Football League and American football in regions of the world where we have focused our operations, plus several new locations, notably China," says Mark Waller, NFL SVP of international, in an e-mail. The NFL will show games, as well as other programming, in over 220 countries and territories once again this year.
"We believe that we've only touched the tip of the proverbial iceberg in terms of our international business capacity," Waller says.
All leagues contacted said that global growth was a critical part of their business objectives and that PR was a critical part of that expansion.
"The public relations function is fully integrated into each territory's business operation," says Waller. "We rely on our PR staff to tell our story – goals, objectives, initiatives – to the public and important constituent groups."
Outreach is a product of local customization. All leagues have ensured that their materials in are in multiple languages, in order to communicate to foreign constituents. Many MLB teams have Spanish version of their Web sites.
Archey says that the MLB owns and distributes its own World Series feed for the non-US market, so it can it can customize the feed for individual countries. For instance, the MLB can point out foreign-born players on that feed, something that the American broadcast partner might not do.
"It's important for us to be able to speak to all audiences in their language," Archey says.
Lyons says that the day before the draft, Andrea Bargnani spent 20 minutes doing interviews in English and the last 10 minutes was dedicated to Italian interviews. During the NBA Finals, Lyons says that Nowitzki likewise devoted interview time to speaking in his native German.
"There's not a team that doesn't have an international angle," Lyons says. "I have yet to meet a player who did not want to take care of their home-language media."
He adds: "Players to a man understand the NBA is a global sport, and that they have to take a little extra time" for that media, saying that it's even more apparent for players who have traveled with the USA Basketball team.
Lyons says the regional offices help the US team to identify media, service them, help them prepare their trips, and facilitate the distribution of their press credentials. The NBA Finals attracted 156 credentialed international media this year. Over the entire season, the NBA credentialed 3,000 media from 47 different countries.
The NFL has dedicated Web sites in Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, China, and the UK. The league also translates all news releases into Spanish and produces all in-market materials in the native language of the target nation. Lyons says the NBA has 13 offices, including Paris, Hong Kong, Canada, and Beijing, and over 100 people working outside of the US.
Waller says that in the past, the league invited foreign media to the games; now it is the foreign media that proactively applies for credentials in order to serve their readers' and viewers' needs.
The league officials also acknowledge that this global growth, aided by strong outreach, has strengthened their position as cultural ambassadors. Lyons cites the success of the league's "Basketball Without Borders" AIDS awareness campaign.
"Using basketball as a message, we're working with the leagues and federations around the world to create HIV-virus awareness," Lyons says, adding that the NBA will soon be sending ten players to Lithuania.
Waller similarly commented on sports' role abroad.
"Sports have long been a bridge between cultures [and] athletic competition is a language all its own," Waller says. "As a league, we were proud to have played in the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1990 just nine months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. We are mindful that all of our international activities carry with them an ambassadorial responsibility and opportunity."