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North American leagues double down on global plans

Updated: 2023-12-25 09:47
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The NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB and MLS all enjoyed considerable success in boosting their global profiles this year, with the staging of games overseas and the acquisition of international superstars playing key roles in the North American leagues' expansion efforts. [Photo/AP]

LOS ANGELES — The major North American leagues all made strides in expanding their international footprints this year and are poised for further gains in 2024 in the increasingly crowded global sports marketplace.

The NBA, NHL, NFL, MLB and MLS all attracted more eyeballs from overseas than ever before and are eager to make inroads into a variety of regions in the coming years.

Leading the way was the NBA, which held contests in Abu Dhabi and Mexico City in 2023 and heads to Paris for a game on Jan 11. The league has played more than 210 games outside North America since 1978.

"Our international business continues to grow rapidly," NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum told Reuters.

"We don't disclose financial numbers but I will tell you we've grown about 15 percent annually over the last 10 years and we expect to grow our international business by another 20 percent next year."

International athletes are close to making up 30 percent of the 450-player NBA and they are not just role players — the MVP trophy has gone to three foreign-born players in each of the past five years.

The NHL made its first trip to the Southern Hemisphere this year, playing two sold-out preseason games in Melbourne in September before taking over hockey-crazed Stockholm with four games last month.

"It was ambitious because it was our first foray into a new market in Australia," NHL senior vice-president Lynn White said.

"And then in Sweden, which is an established and successful market for us, it was about getting to greater scale. By any measure both were a success."

In the coming years the league, where nearly a third of its players are born outside Canada and the US, wants to return to Australia and Mexico while maintaining a consistent presence in the Nordic countries.

It is also "seriously exploring "hosting a four-team international tournament on both sides of the Atlantic featuring the national teams of the US, Canada, Finland and Sweden in 2025, with a possible World Cup-style tournament in 2028.

NFL arrives

The NFL continued to grow its fan base in Germany, where last month it saw 100,167 spectators attend two regular-season games in Frankfurt.

The Nov 5 contest between Miami and Kansas City had 9.6 million viewers across TV and digital, making it the NFL Network's most-watched international game on record. Munich is set to host games in 2024.

"The figures speak for themselves — the NFL has arrived in Germany," said Alexander Steinforth, the general manager of NFL Germany.

North America's most popular league last week said it would play its first game in South America when it comes to Sao Paulo, Brazil in 2024, and its clubs voted to allow the NFL to hold a record eight international games in 2025.

The NFL said it "continues to emphasize global growth as a major strategic priority."

MLB's biggest star, Japanese dual-threat Shohei Ohtani, will make his Los Angeles Dodgers debut in Seoul on March 20 and the league's 2024 travel plans also include Mexico City, London and Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic.

MLS raised its global profile with the arrival at Inter Miami of all-time great Lionel Messi, whose celebrity and sensational play led to record attendances at stadiums and boosted subscriptions to the new MLS Season Pass on Apple TV.

"We are now not just part of the global conversation, but one of the biggest stories in global football," MLS commissioner Don Garber told Reuters.


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