The internationalization of sports: Franchises go global

Sports have always been as much about cultural expression as they are about competition. Europeans love soccer; India and Pakistan gravitate toward cricket; Americans can’t get enough of football. But over the past decade, technology has enabled viewers around the world to tune in to foreign games — a phenomenon typically referred to as globalization. That has led to the adoption of sports in regions where they haven’t traditionally been popular — or even played — a trend we’re dubbing “internationalization.”

Courting exceptional foreign players has long been the simplest way to internationalize a sport. However, today’s efforts reach far beyond individual players joining franchises and leagues setting up shop on other continents. These organizations need to attract and cultivate a new, multicultural fanbase that may be categorically different from the one they’re familiar with back home.

Building viewership

Formula 1 racing, which boasts the fastest cars in the world, is a mainstay in Europe, but barely registered in the US until Netflix released its Drive to Survive docuseries in 2019. Fast-forward to this Formula 1 season, and 12 of the 22 races ESPN aired set American viewership records. This was no accident, but rather a prime example of marketing to the particular preferences of a foreign audience. Liberty Media, which owns Formula 1, recognized the popularity of reality TV among its target audience, and introducing the sport in that medium, combined with hosting more in-person events stateside, allowed Americans to discover Formula 1 on their own terms.

Streaming and digital distribution can be a powerful tool supporting this phenomenon. With more demand for sports and more ability to make games available in different time slots, leagues have been able to better tailor their content for the local audience and grow their sport organically in that region. The demand for sports content to fill the content libraries of the streaming companies has only made this a more attractive option.

Cultivating an expat brand

The key to internationalization, as the Formula 1 example illustrates, is a deep understanding of the population you’re hoping to reach combined with the flexibility to customize your brand to their needs and preferences. As part of its push into European markets, the NFL hosted its first game in Germany this year, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers playing as the “home team” against the Seattle Seahawks. The game was the NFL’s most-watched international game ever, with 5.8 million viewers tuning in across cable and streaming. But perhaps more surprising was that nearly 70,000 people attended the game at the Allianz Stadium in Munich. Videos of German fans singing classic American songs like “Sweet Caroline” and “Country Roads” — by no means a traditional activity in Tampa Bay — went viral. Players told reporters it was one of the greatest football experiences they’d ever had.

The crowd’s enthusiasm generated momentum, and the NFL is planning games in Spain and France in the near future. By embracing local fans and encouraging them to create new customs, the NFL didn’t just broadcast its game globally, it let a foreign audience put its own unique stamp on a quintessentially American experience.

The role of foreign ownership

American moguls and ownership groups have shown a remarkable appetite for acquiring foreign sports teams and leagues, which has accelerated the trend toward internationalization. Eight English Premier League teams now have American owners. On the flip side, a few NBA teams have had foreign owners over the past decade, and the league recently recently decided to allow sovereign wealth funds to invest.

Foreign ownership furnishes the opportunity for franchises to extend themselves to potential new fans in the owners’ home country. That country can also advertise itself as a tourist destination for those who live in the franchise’s locale. Ultimately, teams and leagues that are serious about internationalization should aim to create a permanent footprint — complete with brick-and-mortar offices and local corporate business partners — in multiple global markets.

Considerations for organizations considering internationalization

The starting point when evaluating internationalization of a team or league is to understand the addressable market and sizing the prize. Market surveys, competitive intelligence, and quantitative studies are all critical components of understanding how much of the market can be captured. The next critical consideration is to understand how the value proposition of a team or league differs from country to country. Brand studies — tailored for the target markets under consideration — can be a helpful way to think about how a value proposition changes and adapts. Finally, the reality with internationalization is that organizations don’t know what they don’t know. There’s so many components that go into successful internationalization (for example, cultural fit, local hiring practices) that working with a local organization to guide the process often yields big dividends. Local business relationships can help strategize and build long-term roadmaps, facilitate introductions and generally help accelerate the process of embedding a team or league into the fabric of a new sports market.

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