All the World at Play ; from Basketball to Ice Hockey to Rugby, the Opportunities of Global Markets Are Reshaping the Business of Sports

Article excerpt

The N.B.A.'s San Antonio Spurs are a glittering example of the increasing globalization of modern professional sports.

During an off-season workout on a late August morning, the San Antonio Spurs' practice was a veritable United Nations of hoops. As Tim Duncan, the certain Hall of Fame forward from the U.S. Virgin Islands, prepared for another grind of a season, he was joined by the centers Tiago Splitter of Brazil and Aron Baynes of Australia.

Also on the court were Sean Marks, a New Zealander who is the team's director of basketball operations, and Ime Udoka, an assistant coach who once played for Nigeria's national team. Monitoring the workout was Daisuke Yamaguchi, an assistant athletic trainer from Japan.

This worldly mix is a glittering example of the globalization of modern professional sports. From basketball and soccer to rugby, ice hockey and baseball, more and more players are competing for teams in leagues outside their native country. And globalization runs through the sports world in several directions simultaneously: international scouting and recruitment of talent; distribution of games through broadcasting and the Web; sales of players' jerseys and other merchandise around the world, and cross-border investing in team ownership.

In San Antonio, the Spurs' international diversity, which includes the stars Tony Parker of France and Manu Ginobili of Argentina, reflects the curiosity, open-mindedness and acumen of the coach, Gregg Popovich, 64, who is in his 18th season.

When Popovich joined the Spurs as an assistant in 1988, the National Basketball Association had few non-American players. There was a widespread perception that international players were uncoachable because they did not fit in socially, grew homesick, did not speak English fluently and did not play defense.

Popovich did not agree and persuaded the Spurs to draft European players. And San Antonio became one of the most ambitiously global sports franchises in North America -- and one of the most successful. During the 2013 N.B.A. Finals against Miami, the Spurs' 15 players included nine born outside the continental United States, a league record. After the playoffs, San Antonio signed a 10th international player and drafted a forward from France.

This embrace of international talent has led to four championships since 1999 and a run of prodigious consistency. The Spurs have won 50 or more games for 14 consecutive seasons and have reached the playoffs 16 straight years.

"All I think we've done is we've looked at basketball players and not tried to put a border to them," said R.C. Buford, the Spurs' general manager. "Let's not worry where they're from, let's worry about how they play and what their character is and their interest in being part of a team."

The Spurs' success both embraces the globalization of sports and inspires other N.B.A. teams to follow it.

Last season's N.B.A. finals, for example, were available for viewing in 215 countries and territories in 47 languages. When the Chinese star Yao Ming played for the Houston Rockets from 2002 to 2011, broadcasts in China attracted tens of millions of viewers and sponsors eager to reach them.

In soccer, the entire English Premier League season is broadcast in more than 200 countries, reaching 643 million households.

To build fan bases and audiences, top leagues in various sports now schedule games outside their home countries. This coming season, eight N.B.A. teams will play abroad, with games in Brazil, Britain, China, the Philippines, Spain, Taiwan and Turkey. Four National Football League teams will play in London.

Many of the world's top soccer teams now routinely play preseason matches around the world. In the United States, those matches regularly sell out large American football stadiums and generate enough of an audience that Fox, ESPN and NBC have been enthusiastic bidders for U.S. rights to games. NBC recently signed a $250 million deal for three-year rights to show all Premier League matches in the United States, using its cable networks and Web sites. …

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