When Sports Leagues Go Global, Sponsorship Opportunity Is Created
For athletes, away games have both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, road trips can lead to team bonding and can be a departure from the distractions of home. On the downside, road trips can lead to jet lag, a hostile crowd, and unfamiliar surroundings. Regardless of how the athletes themselves feel about hitting the road though, one thing is certain: road trips are getting longer.
Within the past five years, there has been a rapid influx in the amount of games played overseas by North American professional sports teams. Whether it is one-off marquee events like the NFL regular season games played in London, England or global tours like the ones executed by the NBA that touch multiple markets, global games bring the North American product to an international audience.
In 1978, when the Washington Bullets traveled to Israel to face Maccabi Tel-Aviv, it represented the first time a North American professional sports team played a game overseas against an international opponent. Today, all of the “Big Four” North American pro sports leagues leverage international game play as a way to fan the flames of interest overseas.
But it is not just the athletes themselves that engage in road trips. Corporate sponsors have also tagged along for the ride. Brands – both domestic and foreign – have recognized the opportunity to leverage the world tours of sports properties to target a net-new international audience.
For sports league properties, global tours provide an opportunity to:
1. Build a Presence in Growth Markets: International markets represent strong growth opportunities relative to the mature domestic sports market which is primarily focused on transitioning casual fans to avid fans.
2. Provide a Tangible Experience to International Fans: While the internet has made sports league’s product more accessible than ever, live events are cultural occasions that act as a rallying cry for the international audience.
3. Create a Sponsorable Asset: The creation of crown jewel events can be monetized by adding corporate partners.
The “Big Four” Rundown
NBA: The National Basketball Association has long been considered best-in-class within the “Big 4″ with respect to international outreach. Over the past 36 years, the NBA has played a total of 154 games overseas. In 2013, the NBA unified its global tours under a singular banner: the “NBA Global Games”. In the 2014-2015 season alone, the Global Games has brought NBA franchises to Germany, Turkey, Brazil, China, Mexico and England. The NBA has a total of 20 sponsors for their Global Games series this year. While some Global Games partners are official league sponsors amplifying their presence with a new marquee asset (Harman, Sprite, etc.) the NBA has been able to attract net-new sponsors seeking global impact (ex: Sportlobster, ZTE Mobile, Garanti Bank, etc.)
NFL: The NFL previously attempted to grow its brand overseas through the launch of a six-team developmental league called NFL Europe. The League did not achieve the NFL’s objectives and was folded in 2007. Since then, the NFL has focused their international efforts on the United Kingdom, a priority market for the league, through the “NFL International Series”. Regular season football games have been played annually at London’s Wembley Stadium since 2007, with three games per year taking place over the last two seasons. This NFL season, the NFL has 21 sponsors for its International Series, ranging from NFL Global partners like AB InBev, Microsoft and Gatorade to deals specific to the global series (Aon, Brand USA, Virgin Atlantic, etc.). In its International Series, the NFL has experimented with sponsorship inventory not typically seen in the NFL’s “clean” venue, incorporating sideline LED boards alongside the field of play (driven by a consumer permission for this type of signage based on its prevalence in soccer).
MLB: America’s Pastime has been bringing the sport of baseball around the world since 1986 through the league’s biennial Japan All-Star series in which MLB All-Stars face off against local stars from the Japanese domestic league. Given baseball’s popularity throughout Asia, this region has been the focus of the MLB’s growth efforts (exhibition games have also been staged in China and Taiwan). In 2014 the league played its first international game outside Asia when the Arizona Diamondbacks faced the Los Angeles Dodgers played in the season opening series from Australia. Australian based sponsors like Qantas, Appliances Online, Boral and Destination NSW welcomed the MLB down under with both event signage and local programming.
NHL: International tours are deeply rooted in the NHL’s history, dating back to the league’s first attempt in 1938 when the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings played a nine-game series throughout England and France. Between the 2007-2011, the NHL brought its international tour franchise “NHL Premiere” to market, wherein the regular season was launched each year in a European city (or cities). The series has been on hiatus since 2011 but there has been speculation surrounding its return for the beginning of the 2015-2016 season. The last time the series was held in 2011, software brand Compuware served as title sponsor. The NHL will be adding to its international offering through the Canadian-hosted but globally relevant World Cup of Hockey, returning to Toronto for the first time since 2004 prior to 2016-17 NHL season.
The Opportunity For Sponsors: Property-led global tours can offer strategic benefits to prospective corporate partners regardless of their HQ market. Both North American brands seeking an entry into a global market, and global brands seeking exposure to North American fans have leveraged partnerships with overseas games.
For International Brands: For internationally based sponsors, partnering with a visiting North American league is the rare opportunity to leverage the affinity in a property, be seen as an enabler of unique experiences, and gain exposure with a North America audience. Sportlobster, a U.K. based social network focused on user-generated sports content and predictions, extended their partnership with the NBA Global Games series earlier this year and became the presenting partner for this season’s NBA game played in London, England between the New York Knicks and the Milwaukee Bucks. With a strategic priority being the penetration of the North America market, Sportlobster was seeking an opportunity to gain mass exposure to a highly relevant audience of avid sports fans (the site’s core demo) through their Global Games partnership.
For North-American Brands: Global-based tours can also offer benefits to U.S. and Canadian based sponsors seeking a presence in an overseas market. Brand USA, the public-private partnership responsible for promoting the United States as a premier travel destination seeks just this benefit through their sponsorship of the NFL International Series based in London, England. Brand USA’s on-the-ground presence and festival style programming helped provide information and resources to the 700,000 attendees of NFL-based events surrounding the International Series. By partnering with a live event experience that uniquely America, Brand USA is seeking to inspire global fans to travel to the U.S. after being introduced to such a vibrant piece of American culture – NFL football.