The sun never sets on the NBA's empire. The dominant piece of wall art in the main lobby of the league's New York City headquarters doesn't depict Shaq dunking, Jordan levitating or Iverson dribbling—it's a monstrous map of the world, festooned with LED digital clocks for various time zones. By the time commissioner David Stern arrives at his sprawling corner office each morning, his gu-yuans in Beijing are shutting it down for the day, his Beschäftigte in Cologne are lunching with clients, his empleados in Mexico City are just waking up. He usually begins his workday by checking overnight e-mail from the NBA's 12 satellite offices worldwide.
This year marks Stern's 20th season as commissioner, and the arc of his reign is not unlike that of a medieval emperor. First he solidified his base of power, turning a moribund league into a slickly packaged, telegenic property with charismatic stars and a place on the cultural vanguard. Then he set his sights on expanding his domain, colonizing markets from Buenos Aires to Bangalore. Along the way he staved off periodic rebellions (from the players' association), shepherded his subjects through a gilded age (franchise values and player salaries have, on average, increased more than tenfold) and instituted progressive policy (launching the WNBA). But when he finally abdicates the throne, Stern's legacy will be that of the visionary who capitalized on the international marketplace.
The 61-year-old Stern and his lieutenants are happy to traffic in numbers: The league will broadcast this week's Finals to 205 countries in 42 languages; fans outside the U.S. account for more than half the hits on nba.com; more than 20% of the $3 billion in merchandise sales comes from overseas, and one day, NBA sources predict, that figure will eclipse 50%. But the more compelling evidence of the league's global reach is anecdotal. It's the snowbound Icelandic teenager who, upon being rescued after 24 hours, asked, "Where am I? Is there school today? Did the Magic beat the 76ers?" It's the tiny knickknack shop in Stockholm where 60 kronor ($9 U.S.) will get you a Nick Van Exel—Nick Van Exel!—bobblehead doll. It's the teenager in Beijing who, eager to practice his English, approaches a Westerner on a shopping esplanade and discovers that the visitor hails from Indiana. Suddenly the teen's eyes widen to the size of quarters. "Indiana!" he says. "I like Reggie Miller!"
Like so many bounce passes, the NBA beams its games off satellites to television sets and computer monitors the world over. And it's not alone. Globalization—the buzzword that describes the ever-increasing exchange of goods, services and information across borders—has become the way of the world for American sports leagues. "The most globalized business in the world, and the most lucrative, is the drug trade," says prominent political historian Walter LaFeber, author of Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism. "But for legitimate businesses, sports is probably Number 1."
Major League Baseball departed from 128 years of tradition by opening the 2004 season not in a big league ballpark but in Tokyo—in no small part because a distributor there paid $275 million last fall for major league broadcast rights in Japan through '10. The majority of households that received Stanley Cup telecasts this spring were outside of North America, and the NHL's international television revenue has tripled since 1998. The NFL has had an auxiliary league in Europe for 12 seasons, while the Arena Football League has designs on adding a European division, the winner of which would compete in the AFL playoffs. Even NASCAR, the quintessential good ol' boy of American sport, broadcasts to 122 countries and has ambitions of crossing borders, despite domestic markets still to conquer and the high cost of transporting cars overseas.
Then there is soccer, the world's most global sport. More countries, we're reminded repeatedly, claim membership in Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) than in the United Nations. The English Premier League is generally regarded as the ultimate sports association, and its iconic club, Manchester United, has planted its Red Cafe theme restaurants in outposts from Singapore to Chengdu. "Anyone who sticks his head in the sand and says, 'Life is good, I like doing business in my country, and I'm not going to change,' is setting himself up for a hard fall," says Dean Bonham, a Denver-based sports industry analyst. "The world is the market."
And it is the labor market as well. Five of the top six players on the San Antonio Spurs claim provenance outside the U.S. There are 27 Samoans in the NFL. A staggering 47.6% of players signed to minor league baseball contracts are born outside the States. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, the composition of the NHL has become heavily weighted with Russians and Eastern Europeans, including five of the top 10 goal scorers in '03-04. A Brazilian and a German are on NASCAR's roster of drivers. Even the Professional Bowlers Association tour, which wends its way through Middle America, features a Venezuelan and a highly successful Finn. "Sports made huge gains when they went from live viewing to being broadcast on television, and we're seeing that again as they move from national to international platforms," says Cornell economist Robert Frank, co-author of The Winner-Take-All Society. "With television rights starting to plateau in the U.S., international business is the way to generate growth. And it could be worth billions of dollars."
Adds Paul Swangard, managing director of Oregon's Warsaw Sports Marketing Center, "They say you can go anywhere in the world and say, 'Coca-Cola,' and everyone knows what you're talking about. But say 'L.A. Lakers' or 'Manchester United' or 'New York Yankees,' and you sure won't get many blank stares. Plus, what's one of the major ways Coke and MasterCard and the truly global consumer products advertise their brand? Through sports sponsorships."
Annals of Globalization, Note 1
Four of the main sponsors of the Australian Open tennis tournament are a South Korean car manufacturer (Kia), a Dutch beer (Heineken), a Swiss watch company (Rado) and American Express. In an effort to brand itself as the Pan-Asian Grand Slam event, organizers fly in dozens of ball boys and ball girls from South Korea and Singapore.
Leaning back in his chair, stern can laugh at how far his league has all come. He recalls that early in his tenure he sold replay rights to an Italian distributor for $5,000 per game. "And suddenly," he says, "we were in the international television business." Sometimes weeks after the games were played, the league shipped tapes to Milan, where couriers hopped on bicycles and delivered them to networks. Today roughly 20% of the NBA's $900 million in annual television revenue is derived from foreign rights. "Looking back," Stern says wistfully, "I should have told [buyers] we were the world's largest provider of reality programming."
When he started integrating his business into the global economy, the usually hard-charging Stern opted for a more probing and methodical half-court attack. In 1979, when Larry O'Brien was commissioner and Stern was his general counselor, NBA teams began venturing overseas during the summer for what Stern calls "basketball outreaches." The initial visits were to major European markets, but over time the locales grew more far-flung (Mexico City; Tokyo; Zaragoza, Spain) and the games went from halfhearted exhibitions and clinics against host national teams to full-fledged NBA preseason and regular-season dates. "There was a certain knowledge that by going there, [the NBA] wouldn't be seen as some distant product," Stern says. "We always likened it to the Beatles or Springsteen. You sold lots of records; that was the TV. But then you went on tour occasionally and made the connection with the fans."
Aided by a fortuitous, synergistic convergence—the arrival of an unparalleled icon in Michael Jordan; the invitation to bring the Dream Team to the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; the fall of communism, which opened markets; the advent of the Internet—Stern's global ambitions set in motion a cycle that has become self-perpetuating. Exposed as a kid in Germany to telecasts of Larry Bird's games, Dirk Nowitzki worked on his outside shooting. Exposed to Jordan while growing up in France, Tony Parker practiced his fearless drives to the basket. Exposed to Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming burnished his low-post moves in Shanghai. Having made it big, Nowitzki, Parker and Yao are now some of the NBA's leading missionaries, spreading the gospel of basketball back home. "How many kids today," says Stern, "are in France wanting to be the next Tony Parker?"
And now, like any acquisitive emperor, Stern thirsts for new worlds to conquer. He is turning his attention to the Far East.
Annals of Globalization, Note 2
Weary of the media swarm that trailed him during All-Star weekend, Yao Ming got off a gem. Asked by a Chinese journalist to name his favorite American music, Yao responded, "I like the national anthem. I listen to it at least 82 times a year."
This is the year of the monkey in china, but peer at the skyline of any major city there and you'd be forgiven for thinking it's the Year of the Mechanical Crane. The global economy might be slumping, but in the world's most populated country annual growth is a staggering 10%—a pace that would make China's economy second to only the U.S.'s by 2010. As the grip of communism loosens and as trade barriers fall, progress is visible everywhere. Consider that in Beijing alone, there are nearly one million construction workers. The Chinese have a word—xiahai—for the rising economic tide.
And when a country of 1.3 billion people is riding the xiahai, you don't need an abacus to recognize its potential as a market. Like prospectors bound for Sutter's Mill in the 1840s, innumerable Western companies have been scrambling to claim their fortunes in this largely unmined market. "China is the next frontier for globalization," says Swangard. "The potential of that consumer is just wondrous. The thinking is that if you can win the hearts and minds of this generation, the sky is the limit."
It's not as easy as it sounds, but sports are well-positioned to succeed. The 2008 Beijing Olympics, even four years out, are breathlessly anticipated, and they have prompted more than $30 billion in facility construction and renovation. "It's like a big party to say to the world, Here we are," says Lincoln Venancio, a Beijing-based sports promoter and former Brazilian tennis pro. "The mood here is, Let it be 2008 already!"
A country with a modest legacy in competitive athletics, China is falling in love with big-time sports for the first time. Reggie Jackson once quipped, "When we lose and I strike out, a billion people in China don't care." That sort of indifference can no longer be assumed. "It's not like the market is saturated and so we need to convert tennis fans to golf, or NFL fans to soccer," says Venancio. "We're talking pure growth."
Waiguoren (outsider) sports institutions are tripping over themselves to gain a foothold. In hopes of teaching kids the rules of football—what the Chinese call oliveball—the NFL is funding flag football programs in schools and has plans to play preseason games in Beijing and Shanghai as early as 2006. When soccer powerhouse Real Madrid signed David Beckham last year, club officials stated that the wildly popular midfielder would do wonders for helping Real "crack China." (Sure enough, last summer, shortly after Beckham's signing, the club toured Asia for the first time, playing to sold-out crowds.) Formula One is holding a race in Shanghai later this summer and is considering a Chinese circuit. Baseball, too, has a presence, with a fledgling four-team league (page 81). "The thing about China is the numbers," says Tom McCarthy, a former scout in Asia for the Boston Celtics and now vice chairman of China's Professional Baseball Commission. "If two percent—just two percent—of the kids in China take up baseball, you're talking about seven million players."
It is the NBA, however, that has already established itself; basketball has supplanted soccer as the most popular sport among kids in China. And that's largely because the NBA has something no other U.S. league does: a Chinese superstar. When 7'6" Yao Ming played his first professional game for the Houston Rockets in October 2002, the Chinese telecast was watched by an estimated 300 million people—more viewers than there are U.S. citizens. In China he is ubiquitous, his wry smile plastered on billboards in even the most remote farming villages. And the NBA, nothing if not opportunistic, is all too happy to prime the pump, beaming more and more games to its television partner, CCTV, the state-owned national network.
"I remember listening to Magic Johnson games on Voice of America radio," says basketball writer and broadcaster Xu (Big Xu) Jicheng, a former national team player. "Now games are on television all the time." In October, Yao and the Rockets will play exhibition games against the Sacramento Kings in Shanghai and Beijing, games bereft of much meaning to most Americans but seminal events to the Chinese. Other leagues look on the NBA's base with envy. "At some point maybe we'll have a quarterback from China named Yao Fling," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue told reporters, only half-jokingly, at the Super Bowl in February.
Even before Yao's apotheosis, the sport was deeply entrenched in the Middle Kingdom. Basketball arrived in China in 1893, just two years after its debut in the U.S. During the Cultural Revolution, as Mao's minions were smashing Beethoven records and burning Flaubert novels, purging the country of "insolent Western influence," shooting hoops remained an acceptable leisure pursuit. Tourists passing through the portals of the Forbidden City in Beijing—a former imperial palace, one of the most sacred and iconic sites in China—are greeted by an incongruous sight: two weather-beaten basketball courts smack in a centuries-old courtyard. Asked about the origins of the court, Big Xu shrugs and says, "The guards [stationed at the site] have always liked basketball very much. Some of them are pretty good."
The NBA is sufficiently established that interest even goes beyond nationalist loyalties. Frank Sha, a Beijing sports marketer whose father once coached Yao's mother on the national team, says that the two most popular NBA players in China are Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant. "I think Chinese like the little guys, the guards, more than big men," Sha says. On the courts in Dong Dan (nicknamed Nike Park because it's festooned with swooshes), an outdoor athletic complex in Beijing not far from Tiananmen Square, there can be an hourlong wait for a spot in a pickup game. The caliber of play is all over the map, but snazzy dribbling and outside shooting are the orders of the day.
The usual earmarks of the NBA culture are in evidence—the retro jerseys, the knee-high socks, the knuckle-knocks. Most players are like Jay Liu, 23, a hoops junkie who says he owns 40 pairs of Nikes, can rattle off the names of the Atlanta Hawks' reserves and uses Allen_Iverson99 as his screen name. "To me, basketball is like a way to express yourself," says Liu, who dreams of running an NBA team one day. He stops mid-sentence as his cellphone rings with the chorus from OutKast's Hey Ya—a Sino-the-times, as it were. After dismissing his caller, he adds, "Kids like the basketball lifestyle."
Kids enamored not only of basketball but also of hoops gestalt have been a boon for Western shoe companies. Even in a country awash in knockoffs, Nike has capitalized on its global marketing machine and a stable of world-famous athlete-endorsers to overtake Li-Ning, a moderately priced eponymous brand founded by the Chinese Olympic gold medal gymnast. Nike will do roughly $300 million in sales in China for fiscal 2004—no small feat in a country where the median annual income is less than $1,000—and footwear market analysts predict Nike's sales in China could eclipse $1 billion by '10. Adidas is drafting closely behind.
While Reebok was late to the party, the company's success in poaching Yao Ming from Nike augurs well for the future. "There will be a vicious sneaker war here one day," says Tor Peterson, a partner in Zou Marketing, a Shanghai-based firm. "But right now, there's still enough market for everyone."
Annals of Globalization, Note 3
The Dallas Cowboys have 1,500 season-ticket holders who commute 500 miles from Monterrey, Mexico.
Last month a who's who of Chinese basketball convened in a second-floor ballroom of a Beijing hotel. To the strains of The Godfather theme, cheerleaders from China Basketball Association (CBA) teams showed guests to their seats. The occasion was a press-conference-cum-pep-rally to announce "a new day for the CBA." A polished Power Point presentation outlined plans for conference realignment, an expanded schedule of games, reconstituted logos and new tiers of sponsors. "We will improve," the commissioner earnestly told reporters. "We must improve."
Popular as basketball has become in China, the surge has not necessarily benefited the CBA, a 12-team pro league that has burned through three title sponsors in the past three seasons. Some observers blame the government's poor management of the teams, as well as the puny television contract with state-owned networks. But the effects of the NBA's growing presence, positive and negative, are inescapable. Stern evangelizes that the NBA's worldwide sprawl is a blessing to leagues in other nations—his rising tide lifts their boats—but it doesn't always play out that way. It's not only that the U.S. has become the destination of top Chinese league players (Yao was a Shanghai Shark before he was a Houston Rocket), but also the increase in NBA telecasts and webcasts siphons fans from the CBA. Why pay 40 yuan ($5 U.S.) to watch the Beijing Ducks play the Guangdong Southern Tigers when you can stay home and watch decidedly superior NBA games for free on television or broadband? Chen Quanli, head of CCTV's sports division, claims that ratings for NBA games outdraw the CBA's 3 to 1.
"The NBA turned a generation of kids on to basketball," says Terry Rhoads, Peterson's partner in Zou (Mandarin for go) Marketing, the firm retained by the CBA to improve the value of the brand. "But the NBA has also got the CBA on the edge of its seat saying, We'd better innovate or we'll die. The NBA is coming and it's coming strong. And the CBA needs to change the way it's doing business or else it will become irrelevant to the fans in China. This fear of losing relevancy drives the league."
When globalization came into vogue in the mid-1990s, it was overwhelmingly hailed in the U.S. as a force for good, a truly transforming phenomenon. Free political systems, unfettered trade and emerging technology would conspire to form a "global village"—what was not to like? The idyll was shattered in the late '90s, at about the same time protesters were disrupting World Trade Organization summits and smashing the windows of an "imperialist" McDonald's franchise in France. It became clear that, for all its virtues, globalization was not without its drawbacks: widening chasms between rich and poor societies, plummeting environmental standards and increasing dependence on outsourcing. Peril was riding tandem with so much promise. Which is to say, globalization is like sports: For all the winners, there are, necessarily, losers as well.
Rest assured that at most coordinates on the map there are kids wearing Nikes and drinking Gatorade and laughing at the latest risqué beer ads as they watch the Yankees or the Detroit Pistons on ESPN International. All well and good. But that allegiance is likely coming at the expense of an indigenous sport, an indigenous brand, an indigenous cultural touchstone. "Sports are decentralized and localized in innumerable places," says LaFeber. "But in the U.S., with our centrally directed mass merchandising, sometimes we aren't able to conceptualize it that way. Ask an Asian shoe manufacturer what they think about globalization and I bet you get a different answer than when you ask Nike executives."
Or you could ask a Brazilian soccer fan. The most populous country in South America is the world's top producer of futbol talent. But European leagues, taking advantage of the downtrodden South American economy, have aggressively pursued all the best players. Brazilian teams, often owned by multinational corporations, have been all too happy to sell stars overseas for transfer fees that can top $10 million—and it's not as if that money goes back into the team. So while Real Madrid fans can cheer for Ronaldo, clubs in Brazil have second-rate rosters playing before disaffected crowds.
There are other costs and consequences of doing business in the global economy. Because of time differences, if hoops fans in China want to watch Yao live or hockey heads in Sweden want to catch Peter Forsberg in a Colorado Avalanche game, it often entails waking up before dawn or tuning in mid-morning. "It sounds minor, but it's a real hurdle to having a global league," says Breck McCormack, president of the Asian division of IMG, the Cleveland-based marketing giant. "Television drives so much of sports, but fans have to be pretty committed to watch a telecast at five in the morning."
Likewise, fluctuations among countries' currencies and vast differences in their standards of living present a challenge. As badly as Monterrey, Mexico, wants a major league baseball team, it's hard to see the economics working in a market where fans are accustomed to paying the equivalent of $4 for a decent seat to a sporting event. Because of the strength of the Euro against the dollar, the cost for U.S. leagues to do business in Europe has spiked over the past two years. NBA teams and agents hoping to tap into the mother lode of big men in Africa are learning another expensive lesson: When the infrastructure for developing talent doesn't exist, you have to bear the cost of building it yourself. And like everything else, sports are vulnerable to global events—terrorism, SARS, crashing financial markets. When the U.S. accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade several years ago, one consequence was the temporary removal of NBA broadcasts from CCTV.
In the manufacturing and high-tech sectors, jobs once filled by Americans are now being outsourced to cheaper labor markets overseas. In sports, roster spots once filled by Americans are now going to foreign imports. Some regard this shift as a fair tradeoff for the billions of dollars the leagues will earn in international revenue. "This is what a global economy is all about," says Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati, a staunch proponent of globalization. "It's like the people that complain about outsourcing but conveniently forget all the business their company does in Europe and Asia."
But others argue that the loss of jobs is too high a price to pay, and it's becoming a hot-button issue in sports. As John Thompson, the former Georgetown coach who turned his program into a national power after bringing in Jamaican-born Patrick Ewing and Congolese 7-footer Dikembe Mutombo, recently told The New York Times, "Players here need to wake up and smell the coffee; eventually the [NBA] could go Euro." Other times, xenophobia has been even more blatant, be it NASCAR's Jimmy Spencer's lamenting Toyota's presence in the truck-racing series because the Japanese "bombed Pearl Harbor, after all" or LPGA golfer Jan Stephenson whining that "the Asians are killing our tour." Is it coincidence that the two most high-flying sports leagues domestically, the NFL and NASCAR, have the most homogenous composition of athletes? At least in some pockets, "buy American" applies not only to automobiles and electronics but to athletes as well.
If sports have steadily become as much about the cult of personality as about the competition, the influx of foreign athletes creates a challenge to the folks in the marketing department. When your star player doesn't speak the native language and leaves the country in the off-season, it can be hard to build brand identity around him. Yao is Exhibit A that it can be done, but other teams and leagues are less fortunate. "Whether any franchise wants to admit it or not publicly, it is a real issue and it is one of the major headaches of the NHL," says Tom DeCabia, a sports marketing consultant and the former vice president of PHD USA, the country's largest media buying firm. "How do you make these guys household names when the names are ones you'd never heard in your household?" (The overseas players "have been a boon," responds Ken Yaffe, managing director of NHL International. "They give us a unique opportunity to present the global nature of the game.")
Perhaps the deepest consequence of globalization is that it confers power to the dominant cultures. Political scientists talk of the deployment of "soft power," a country's use of culture and information, rather than political might or military brawn, to exert influence. Traditionally, soft power has referred to movies and fashion and consumer products. But today sports provide a prime example: They're not being globalized so much as they're being Americanized. Like the Starbucks logo and the Matrix DVDs that have popped up in the most remote global backwaters, the proliferation of televised American games played in American venues slathered with American signage exacts a cultural price. Leagues can talk about "respecting" indigenous cultures, and broadcasts can be tailored to the local viewership—"Two rules we have for showing [American] sports internationally are no nicknames and explain the rules," says David Hill, CEO of Fox Sports—but it's still an imposition of American culture. Consider the recent edition of China's NBA Slam magazine, in which a story on Kevin Garnett, translated from English to Mandarin, came adorned with footnotes to explain terms such as bling, posse and double-digit-carat rocks.
And it's unilateral: When it comes to sports, the U.S. runs what is, in effect, a huge trade surplus. Happy as we are to ship our sports products overseas—familiarizing the world with the New Orleans Saints' backfield or the Colorado Rockies' starting rotation—there is neither interest in nor exposure for imports. Soccer, the most popular sport in the world, still struggles for momentum in this country. Anything else is usually fodder for blooper segments on the 11 o'clock news. NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol dismisses the notion that American fans will clamor for cricket and rugby broadcasts, the way overseas sports fans demand more baseball. "If we could do a 5 or 6 rating airing the Monaco Grand Prix live at seven in the morning, we would do it," he says. "But that's not going to happen." So too are Americans uninterested in seeing their leagues expand into other countries. A recent ESPN online poll asked fans if they supported the idea of adding a European NBA franchise. Of the 13,490 respondents, 79.3% answered no.
Stern bridles at any suggestions of NBA imperialism. He is quick to point out that while overseas leagues take protectionist measures, such as limiting the number of foreigners on the roster, his league is a meritocracy open to anyone. If the teams all play in North America, that's just a function of where the money is. "Capitalism is a wonderful thing," he says. "This is all about competition, about skills. Regardless of ethnicity, race or national origin, that's the beauty of our game."
Annals of Globalization, Note 4
The British comedian John Cleese does a riff about why Great Britain is superior to the United States. Among his reasons: "When we hold a world championship for a particular sport, we invite teams from other countries."
Ask dozens of worldwide sports industry experts about how globalization will change sports and the answers cut a predictably wide swath. But an overwhelming majority predict that we're about to enter an era of truly global championships. "You look at the success of the Olympics and the success of the World Cup—after that, no properties are even close," says Swangard. "[Global championships] make sense for television, they make sense for the athletes, they make sense for fans, and they make sense for sponsors."
Hockey's most sterling moment in recent memory came at the 2002 Winter Olympics, where the best Canadian, American, Czech, Swedish and Russian teams played clean, fiercely competitive games. Quite apart from providing a welcome diversion from the NHL labor strife, this September's World Cup of Hockey in Stockholm will trail only the Olympics as the year's most significant international competition. "I think the product gets diluted if it's held more than once every few years," says the NHL's Yaffe. "But international competition just makes sense."
Calling such tournaments the wave of the future, baseball executives agree. Major League Baseball will soon officially announce a 16-nation World Cup invitational tournament to be held in March, preceding the 2005 season. "The U.S., Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela—think about how many teams can win this thing," says Tim Brosnan, baseball's executive for overseas marketing. "And in terms of business in Asia, baseball leads the pack. Yao Ming hasn't scratched the surface of what [Hideo] Nomo, Ichiro [Suzuki] and [Hideki] Matsui have done in Japan. This will just be a great international showcase."
The NBA would seem likely to be the first major U.S. league to add a franchise in Europe. There are still significant hurdles; not least, there isn't a venue on the continent that meets league standards. Further, 15,000 Parisians might show up to watch Parker and the Spurs play an exhibition game, but is there sufficient interest to sustain crowds for 41 home games each season? At NBA prices? Ebersol raises the point that the retirement of the high-speed Concorde—"The first time we've ever said, 'Screw progress'"—is yet another impediment to transatlantic competition.
Plus, there is that bramble of federations and government regulations. "No question basketball is growing in Europe, but NBA franchises are a whole different ball game," says Marshall Glickman, former president of the Portland Trail Blazers who now consults for the Euroleague. "Some people even think that if the NBA [tried to come] to Europe, the European Union would get involved and try to declare it an illegal monopoly."
But Stern, who first raised the possibility more than a decade ago, believes that travel costs and time differences can be offset. At the same time, he is coy about when. The next step in the process, he claims, is sending NBA teams to Europe for their training camps. "Instead of going to South Carolina, you just go to south Milan," he says. "If we sent four teams over, you could have three games against NBA competition, three games against the improving Euroleague competition and then come back to the States to get ready for the season."
What else might the future hold? Look for sports that require minimal or universal equipment to thrive. "Without any doubt, I think extreme sports are the next big thing," says Hill of Fox Sports. "Every country has got skateboards, bikes and concrete." Careful not to offend any constituents or sponsors, truly global stars the likes of Jordan, Beckham and Tiger Woods will be increasingly bland. The measures which teams and agents will use to lure athletes across borders will become more competitive and untoward. And with the sports labor pool expanding, making incremental differences in performances even smaller, Frank, the Cornell economist, predicts that globalization will ratchet up demand for performance-enhancing drugs.
But, ultimately, there is plenty of reason for optimism. Globalization is a boon for athletes who have never had more opportunity to match skills with the world's best. No longer does the Japanese baseball star or the Brazilian point guard have to wonder, What if? And though the traditional economic model suggests that as more people compete for jobs, wages will fall, as sports continue to grow globally, international television rights increase and tributaries of revenues turn into flowing streams, salaries for athletes, particularly outside the U.S., are likely to continue rising. "And the stars," says Frank, "will get many fold what they do now."
Fans worldwide will get more games than ever, as global media conglomerates owning both content and distribution rights will continue investing in sports broadcasts. Expect to see more teams follow the lead of Man U and the Yankees and create their own networks devoted to the franchise. The pending explosion of broadband and the proliferation of television tiers—the so-called thousand-channel universe—may end up being a blessing for niche sports. Not unlike the magazine kiosk that seems to have a periodical on even the most obscure topics, there will be a television platform for every sport. "Fans of Thai kickboxing may have to click on ESPN59 and they may have to pay a premium fee, but they'll be able to get it," says media consultant Neil Pilson, a former head of CBS Sports. "The emerging technology will help [niche sports] get distributed." For sponsors, sports are still the most effective vehicle for reaching males, whether they live in Dublin, Ohio, or Dublin, Ireland.
But there's something more fundamental as well. Sports unite a lot more than they cleave. Indians and Pakistanis might be on the brink of mortal combat, but they lay down their arms and suppress their hostility for test cricket. Even in countries where anti-Americanism is at its most virulent, kids will still wear Yankees jerseys. As the world simultaneously gets smaller and more complex, sports are a connective tissue. As Stern puts it, "When sports transcend borders, good things usually happen."
Late one recent afternoon in Shanghai, on the Reebok-built courts behind the Ritz-Carlton, a young, muscular gym teacher stood before 50 or so kids. He held a basketball and lectured on the nuances of lan qiu—hoops. Beneath a massive billboard of a stoic-looking Yao Ming, the instructor explained that dribbling must be continuous and that kicking the ball is forbidden. He broke his Mandarin to say Magic and proceeded to spin the ball on his finger. As the schoolkids giggled and looked on in awe, he raised the ball over his head. As it spun, illuminated by shadowy sunlight, it looked for all the world like a rotating globe.
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