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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz evades a tackle from Jacksonville Jaguars defensive tackle Marcell Dareus during an October game at Wembley Stadium in London. Photo by Dave Shopland/BPI/REX/Shutterstock
Nov 9, 2018

American Pro Sports Are a Huge Draw for International Dollars

The NBA’s success in China and the NFL’s moves into the UK signal a massive overseas market for these distinctly American products.

American professional sports are an essential part of American culture. And for a long time, that dynamic drove the business approach of our sports leagues—marketing was hyper-focused on our shores, with a broad presumption that our sports culture is simply incompatible with the rest of the world’s. Keep our sports dollars on our side of the pond, let them have theirs.

Social media and an expanding range of viewing options have decimated that thinking. In recent years, my own kids and their friends were just as likely to wear a Manchester City or Real Madrid jersey as a New York Jets or Tampa Bay Buccaneers one. It goes the other way, too: Our sports leagues are making strong and smart moves into overseas markets—but more on that in a minute.

With exports and the trade balance dominating much of our political and economic discourse these days, the trend arrives at a pivotal moment. (Never forget: Any foreign dollar spent on an American good or service counts as an export, even if it’s the overseas viewing of a Steph Curry three-pointer or a Patrick Mahomes TD pass instead of the purchasing of a car or refrigerator.) Certain overseas markets are perfectly primed to join American sports fandom—an opportunity that could have a profound effect on international inbound travel and visitor spending.

Consider this: More than 16,000 Chinese fans attended a preseason NBA matchup earlier this month in Shanghai between the Dallas Mavericks and the Philadelphia 76ers. After the Shanghai game and another in Shenzhen, the NBA has played 26 games in China and has long since cemented itself as the most popular American professional league in that country. Chinese fans greeted players at the airport at 4 a.m., showed up to the game decked out in team gear, and several thousand people attended the NBA Fan Fest in Shanghai.

According to the Chinese Basketball Association, more than 300 million people in China play basketball—a number that nearly equals the entire population of the U.S. The NBA is doing an exemplary job of capitalizing on that interest. NBA China has offices in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, and more than 190 million Chinese streamed the 2017 playoffs on mobile devices. The NBA account on the Chinese social media platform Weibo boasts more than 33 million followers (the NBA has only 27.5 million followers on Twitter), and teams are adding Mandarin speakers to their digital departments to better connect to Chinese audiences. Additionally, NBA players have secured lucrative endorsements in the Chinese market, further raising their profiles with Chinese consumers. Hall of Famer Yao Ming—a 7’6” Shanghai native drafted first overall by the Houston Rockets in 2002—paved the way for this trend of Chinese fans’ ardent support of individual teams; the Rockets played in the NBA’s first Chinese games two years after Yao was drafted.

The U.S. travel industry can also benefit from increased Chinese interest in the NBA. China is the third-largest source market for all overseas visitation to the U.S., and Chinese visitor spending was among the highest of all international visitors in 2017—nearly $6,700 per trip.

When these Chinese visitors come to the U.S.—as about three million do annually—they’ll be more interested in attending a game, buying merchandise or adding cities and hotel stays to their trips. After watching the Mavericks play in China, visitors may be drawn to see a game in Dallas. Chinese visitors to New York might add a trip down to Philadelphia to watch the 76ers again. Even the post-Yao Rockets remain hugely popular in China, as are the Golden State Warriors, the NBA’s dominant team.

Marketing sports tourism in China cannot come at a better time. While the merchandise trade deficit has been growing wider for decades, the U.S. had a travel trade surplus of $29.8 billion with China in 2017. Our overall trade deficit with China would have been 9 percent higher without the surplus provided by travel. The NBA’s continued efforts to make inroads in the Chinese market may help further increase Chinese visitation and spending.

The NBA isn’t the only league with a playbook for taking its product global. The NFL played three games this season at London’s Wembley Stadium and will play one game at Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca—an opportunity to not only promote the league, but also sell the U.S. as a destination.

Football—ahem, American football—in the United Kingdom has grown tremendously in popularity since the first London series game in 2007. The October 28 game between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Philadelphia Eagles was played in front of a crowd of nearly 86,000—a higher attendance than the league-highest official seating capacity (MetLife Stadium, home to the New York teams). NFL research estimates that there are 13 million fans in the UK, with more than four million identifying themselves as “avid.” Additionally, there are 47,000 fans who are “season ticket holders” who purchase tickets to every NFL UK game.

Notably, the UK is also the largest overseas inbound travel market to the U.S. There are more than 20 direct routes from London’s Heathrow Airport to NFL team cities. U.S. travel exports to the UK accounted for 7.5 percent of all travel exports to overseas countries in 2017.

London has now hosted 24 regular season NFL games, and all but two teams have played a game in the UK. Each of the 30 teams that have played in London served as ambassadors for their home cities, bringing a slice of their cities’ culture in the form of mascots, memorabilia, fan events, themed pub nights and more. The NFL is not only selling itself to the UK market, but it is also selling the U.S. as a culturally rich travel destination.

Seizing on the opportunity to promote America even further, Brand USA, America’s destination marketing organization, teamed up with NFL UK to present the London Games Kickoff Concert on its GoUSA TV streaming channel. Brand USA launched the sponsorship with a day-long fan fest in Piccadilly Circus that showcased American food and music. GoUSA TV is available on Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, and provides original programming that promotes the unique aspects of the NFL’s 32 team cities, encouraging viewers to visit these destinations.  

As the U.S. continues to see its share of the global long-haul travel market slip, increased sports tourism can help reverse the decline. More than 20 professional sports organizations participated in the most recent IPW, the largest trade show for inbound U.S. tourism—including strong showings from the NHL and Major League Baseball, who are also making strong moves in the international market. Destinations, attractions, hotels, restaurants and other businesses can net serious gains through increased sports tourism, and our leagues are doing the entire U.S. economy an enormous service by moving to capture the trend.

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