The NBA heads to Japan this weekend for two preseason games while the NFL returns to London for a regular season matchup in London. Sunday’s game at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is the first of five international games this NFL season, with two more in London in October, as well as the league’s first-ever regular-season game in Germany followed by a meeting of the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers in Mexico City in November.
Aside from staging games outside North America, U.S. pro sports leagues are taking multiple other steps to build their fan bases by engaging with audiences around the world. Last December, the NFL assigned marketing rights in 26 different foreign markets to 18 of its teams. Nine clubs were given rights in Mexico, six in the U.K. and four in Germany.
Earlier this month, Sportico reported that MLB would follow in the NFL’s footsteps by offering marketing rights in select international markets to individual teams, something that had previously been restricted to the league office. MLB also has been active in taking the game beyond the borders of the U.S. and Canada, hosting games in Puerto Rico, Mexico, the U.K., Japan and Australia in the last ten years, with many more planned. The league also is a partner in the World Baseball Classic, scheduled to return next year.
Building the popularity of American sports internationally gives leagues a chance to attract more fans at a time when they are facing numerous challenges in growing their domestic audiences, especially among younger consumers. But alongside that long-term goal lies a more immediate opportunity to attract new revenue from corporate partners, both foreign and domestic.
Consider the NBA’s Japan Games and the roster of brands that will make an appearance at the games in Tokyo between the defending champion Golden State Warriors and the Washington Wizards. Presenting sponsors Rakuten and Nissan are joined by 11 other “marketing partners”: 2K, American Express, Hennessy, Hokka, Instyle Group, NEC, Nike, SAP, ServiceNow, Sun Chlorella and Tissot.
Brands typically see such expansion as a win-win. For existing league and team sponsors with interest in the new markets, international games and events can provide a nearly turnkey extension of their partnership for an entirely new audience. Consider a global company that may be interested in an MLB team’s jersey patch: If the league grants that team commercial rights in an overseas market or markets, the brand will be able to promote its new deal there as well as in the U.S.
For others, new territories may create a way into the sport that was previously unavailable because it was cost prohibitive or because of category conflict with a current partner.
Prospective sponsors must pay close attention to the rights on offer, which will vary greatly depending on whether the deal is with a team or league. Other limitations may apply related to specific circumstances. For example, according to a Sportico source, “some of MLB’s most mature international markets, like Japan and South Korea, were withheld from the (team marketing) program because there are already a number of partners there with league-wide rights.”
The move into new international markets is an obvious and organic offering for rights holders and their brand partners that are continually in search of new inventory to increase revenue and deliver bigger and better benefits, so expect to see more similar activity across all the major sports leagues in the near future.