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Not quite a slam dunk: Globalization and American team sports

Authors:
Not Quite a Slam Dunk: Globalization and American Team Sports
John Nauright
Introduction
For many decades the United States has been actively involved in international sports with
many early influences coming from the British Isles, particularly England. English settlers and
their American offspring established horse racing, boxing, pedestrianism and cricket as major
pastimes in the period before the American Civil War (1861-65). After the war, other sporting
influences emerged including the arrival of football, in the forms of soccer and rugby which
were codified in England in 1863 and 1871 respectively. During the 1870s and 1880s baseball
began to replace cricket as the leading summer bat and ball sport, though pockets of cricket
popularity remained and English and Australian cricket teams continued to tour the USA until
the 1920s.1 Baseball became so popular that Albert Goodwill Spalding, former player and
sporting goods pioneer, financed a world baseball tour in 1888.2 Though the world did not take
to baseball as easily as Spalding had hoped, neither did Cuba take up cricket as Winston
Churchill famously predicted.3
Though Spalding's tour did not lead to baseball storming the world, it and other
endeavors did begin to put an American stamp on the global sports marketplace particularly in
areas where American imperialist interests were strong such as Cuba, Dominican Republic,
Mexico and the Phillipines or where American missionaries promoted the spread of sport in
addition to emerging trading interests in Japan, Taiwan and Central America as Gerald Gems
outlines in his work.4 American missionaries were partly responsible as well for the spread of
soccer in sub-Saharan Africa as they believed it to be a good sport for urbanizing Africans to
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play.5 Despite this initial flurry and spread of sporting interests, most particularly baseball, the
role of American sports globally has been far less dominant compared to other areas of
American mass culture such as movies, television, popular music or fast food restaurants. The
late British-based American commentator Mark Marqusee pointed out in 2000 the relative
weakeness of American global sporting dominance. Compared to popular music, cinema and
television, he asserted American sports were much weaker in global influence.6 Despite
Marqusee's assertion there is no doubt that American sports such as basketball and volleyball
have spread across the globe becoming the second and third most widely played team sports
respectively while the NFL is watched in over 100 countries around the world.(citation
needed?)
The global popularity of Michael Jordan (developed in partnership with the Nike shoe
and sports apparel company)7 in the 1990s launched a new era of American sporting
engagement globally as US sports expanded business interests around the world and US
investors began to take an interest in international sports team ownership.8 Top American
soccer players began to appear regularly for leading European clubs,9 hundreds of former
college basketball players earned a living playing basketball professionally around the world,
and countless athletes from around the world were recruited for the US intercollegiate sports
system. While the case of Michael Jordan in the 1990s has been well documented, perhaps
equally important for US sport in the global marketplace was the bringing of Chinese star Yao
Ming to the NBA as American sports began to tap the largest potential sports marketplace in
the world.
The Last Frontier: Yao Ming and Selling US Sport to China10
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On 30 October 2002, Yao Ming made his debut in the NBA for the Houston Rockets. Yao
Ming was not the first Chinese player to don a NBA uniform, but he was by far the most
significant in terms of both pure basketball skill and commercial potential. This historic
contest against the Indiana Pacers not only marked his first NBA game, but it was the
culmination of a long planned relationship between the NBA and China. Yao made a difference
on the court for his team, but his impact has been far grander and wider reaching in terms of
international marketing and business. Sponsors viewed Yao as the gateway to the Asian
market; as such he became the NBA symbol for globalization there. An estimated 500 million
Chinese tuned into Yao’s NBA debut on television.11 In October of 2004 Yao was ranked 19th
in the Sports Business Journal’s listing of the twenty most influential people in professional
basketball. Yao was one of only two then active players on the list, along with mega-superstar
Shaquille O’Neal.12 Both China and the United States shared the same capitalist dream for Yao.
The Yao situation was compared by a Chinese diplomat as similar to that of the United States –
China “ping-pong” diplomacy of the 1970s, when the two countries started to build relations
through sport, they would build business interests through sport in the 2000s.13
The case of Yao Ming details the relationship that the NBA worked so hard to cultivate with
the Chinese in anticipation of becoming a major player in the region. It is now exemplified by
Major League Baseball in several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean and in Asia as
well as the National Hockey League (NHL) in Eastern and Northern Europe. Since 2008, Major
League Soccer (MLS) has followed suit bringing in English stars David Beckham and Steven
Gerrard and French icon Thierry Henry among others to attract wider interest to its
competition. Yao Ming represents how globalization has been a two-way street in the
expansion of North American sports leagues internationally and serves as a useful case study to
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understand how globalization and US professional sports business interests have worked in
tandem. The NBA, in its pursuit of Yao Ming, was at the forefront of a newly aggressive US
professional sport engagement with global markets.
In October 2002, the NBA opened a regional office in Beijing, China to grand fanfare.14
This occurred right before Yao took the court for the Houston Rockets for the first time.
However, as far back as 1979, the NBA had its eye on the Asian market and the huge
opportunities for development and marketing that were virtually untapped by any American
sport save pockets of baseball interest in Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. That summer, the
league’s Washington Bullets (now the Wizards) visited China and competed in two exhibition
games against the Chinese National team and the Bayi Rockets, a team in the Chinese
Basketball Association (CBA).15 This was the first key event in the relationship between the
NBA and China. This event set in place a chain of events that led to what would have been
unthinkable at the time – Chinese players in the NBA. Six years later, the NBA-China
Friendship Tour was formed. The Chinese National team came to New York to participate in
training and practice against NBA teams and receive instruction from such legendary NBA
figures as Red Auerbach and Pete Newell.16 There were then no significant developments with
the Chinese until 1994 when events and contacts between the two parties started occurring on a
regular basis; however, in the interim the NBA opened its first Asian office in Hong Kong in
1992.17 That same year, developments with the Chinese community in the United States began.
In November 1994 a radio station in Los Angeles broadcast the game between the Los Angeles
Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers in Mandarin Chinese, marking the first broadcast in Chinese
of an NBA game within the United States.
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In June of 1994, CCTV, the state run television network in China, broadcasted the
entire NBA Finals series between the Rockets and New York Knicks live. This marked the
first time that the Chinese people had the opportunity to witness all of the games without
delay.18 Today, NBA games can now be seen in over 400 million homes in China, and more
Chinese are now acquiring televisions for the first time.19 China quickly became the League’s
largest television base outside of the United States and recently surpassed the USA in total
numbers of viewers.20 In 1997, prominent NBA players David Robinson and Joe Smith held
multiple basketball clinics for thousands of children in Beijing. In early 1999, NBA Shi Kong,
the Chinese version of Hoop magazine debuted in China. “Hoop” is the official NBA
magazine and it is sold as a program at game venues.21 In August of 2000 an NBA Legends
Tour traveled to China to play exhibitions against the Chinese national team. By the time Yao
was drafted by the Houston Rockets in June of 2002, the NBA had launched a Mandarin-
language website in preparation for his arrival.22
The China/NBA relationship came full circle in October of 2004, as Yao and the
Rockets played in two exhibition games in Shanghai and Beijing dubbed the “China Games”
against their Western Conference foes the Sacramento Kings. This marked the first time NBA
teams competed in China. Not surprisingly, both games featuring Yao were sold out, and NBA
Commissioner David Stern said “it is like the Beatles on tour,”23 Appearances by Yao were not
disclosed publicly before they occurred so crowds of Chinese supporters and well-wishers
would not mob him. Fans waited over forty hours to see their hometown hero and courtside
seats inside went for more than $2,500, which was more than the annual income of the average
Chinese citizen at the time.24 The Kings roster also featured roster hopeful Liu Wei, who
played in China for the Shanghai Sharks, Yao’s former team. The NBA brought along former
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league stars as well as WNBA players for this tour across China to help with promotion.25 Of
course, the tour was marketed by the league as a homecoming for Yao, but the NBA really
looked at it as an opportunity to promote itself, its products, and their sponsors in China. It was
more of an investment in the future by the NBA and the six high-level American multi-national
corporate sponsors (McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch, Reebok, Eastman Kodak, Disney, and
Coca-Cola), who jumped at the chance to pick up the bill for the trip across the globe.26
China has a history of emphasizing sport as a way to boost national morale. This
started in 1949 when the communist People’s Republic of China was founded and continues
through today.27 The backbone of the sporting system in China is their “sports schools.” Yao is
a product of these programs, as he was selected at a young age to be a basketball player
because of his height and genes (his parents were both basketball players). Thus, since the
Chinese players are trained by the government, they have been viewed by the regime as
property of the state.28 These thoughts were evident when you look at how they handled the
Yao Ming situation and the case of Wang Zhizhi, another Chinese basketball star.
In 1999, the Dallas Mavericks drafted Wang Zhizhi. Wang was the second Chinese
player drafted by the NBA, and he became the first Chinese player with a legitimate chance to
play in the NBA (In 1987 the Atlanta Hawks drafted Sung Tao in the seventh round, but he
never even traveled to the United States). At the time he was drafted, Wang’s official position
in China was not as a member of the national basketball team, but it was as a “regimental
commander” for the P.L.A., the Chinese army.29 It took over two years for Mavericks
management to convince Wang’s bosses at Bayi to allow him to play in the United States. After
his second NBA season in which he averaged around five points a game, Wang requested
permission from the Chinese to stay in the United States so he could compete in the NBA’s
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summer league in 2002. Wang had previously agreed to travel home every summer to fulfill
commitments for the national team. The Chinese government denied his request, but Wang
would not return to China to compete for the national team. Showing how delicate their
relationship with China was, the Mavericks refused to offer Wang a new contract; they did not
want to tarnish the bond they, and by extension the NBA, had formed with the Chinese. That
fall, the Los Angeles Clippers signed Wang to a new contract and they were promptly banned
from appearing on Chinese television. Wang’s military passport expired and he did not return
to China after the summer of 2001, in between his first and second professional seasons.30
Before this incident the Chinese embraced Wang. Just a few months after his
Mavericks’ debut, he participated in a coaching clinic that took place throughout China and
was treated like a hero by the Chinese government upon his return.31 Then in April of 2002,
the first NBA Asian media tour was arranged. The tour focused on Wang and the second NBA
player from China, Mengke Bateer (a good player, but nowhere near the skill level of Yao or
Wang), but the NBA was still intently focused behind the scenes on bringing Yao to the United
States.32 He was still the number one prize in China.
On 26 June 2002, the Rockets selected Yao Ming as the first player chosen overall in the
NBA Draft. The Wang Zhizhi situation directly influenced Yao. After Wang did not return,
Chinese officials became even more protective of their coveted star center. “Yao Ming is
China’s (Michael) Jordan. We don’t want to lose him,” said Li Yaomin, the vice general
manager of the Sharks.33 These officials wanted to be sure that Yao would not repeat the
actions of Wang, and the negotiation process was a very difficult one. Yao was considered by
just about every basketball scout to be a top prospect ready for the NBA by 2001, but his
Chinese Basketball Association team, the Shanghai Sharks wanted to win a title first and they
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would not permit Yao to leave (the team did win the championship that next season). These
same officials also were wary of relinquishing any control they had over Yao; they had said he
would be able to be drafted by the NBA in 2001, but then changed their stance. Scouts from
virtually every NBA team visited Shanghai in 2002 to observe Yao in person when they finally
felt the Chinese would let him go. When the Houston Rockets stumbled upon the NBA’s first
pick through the draft lottery they decided to negotiate with the Chinese separately from the
NBA, whose efforts had not been going well.34 They knew exactly who they were going to
draft and they wanted to make sure Yao was going to become a Rocket. The Sharks were
willing to let Yao go, but they wanted more than a small piece of the pie in exchange.
Almost immediately after his team had won the first pick in the draft, Rockets general
counsel Michael Goldberg traveled to Shanghai. When he got there, he met with Mr. Li in
order to establish a relationship right away. The Sharks immediately started listing off their
demands, none of which could be granted under NBA collective bargaining rules.35 After hard
negotiations, a deal was reached the morning of the 2002 NBA Draft, with the Chinese
receiving assurances that Yao would be able to (and would) compete for China in the
Olympics. When Yao was finally drafted, he put on the hat of his new team, which is an
American draft day tradition. However, in a symbol of just how peculiar the entire situation
was, the newest member of the NBA did it from a television studio in Beijing, not from the
Madison Square Garden stage with his fellow draftees.
Indeed, China could have refused to release Yao to the United States. There is a lot of
speculation as to why China allowed their prized sports star to leave the country. The most
probable explanation is the fact that Beijing was the host the 2008 Summer Olympics. China
viewed their Olympics as a major chance to continue building relations with the United States
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and the rest of the world both diplomatically and commercially. The country recently had been
admitted to the World Trade Organization and their GDP grew at a rate of nearly 10% annually
in the first decade of the 2000s.36 China also had long had an unfavorable human rights
reputation. Secrecy also is synonymous with the country, as much of the world is dominated
by more open societies. Permitting Yao to pursue a career elsewhere was perceived as a sign
the Chinese were willing to open up and be trusted by the United States and the world as a
whole. China was eager to been seen as an open nation, but at the same time it still seemed
unwilling to give up too much control over its prized athletes.37 In this way, Yao was a political
symbol. During a visit to Houston in September of 2002, the Chinese ambassador to the United
States mentioned that situation of Yao as an example of “constructive engagement” between
the United States and China.38 However, the mixed signals they sent regarding their
“ownership” of Yao raised questions about how much the Chinese wanted to open up before
the 2008 Games.39
Before he was allowed to travel to Houston, Yao had to promise to fulfill his
commitments to the national-team during the NBA off-season, and in 2004 he represented
China at the Summer Olympics in Greece. He had to agree to pay the CBA between five and
eight per cent of his annual salary from the Rockets for the duration of his career. That was not
all, as Yao also had to pay the Sharks a buyout that ranged from eight to fifteen million dollars
(the final price was to be set by the length of his career and endorsements).40 NBA rules did not
allow for any of Yao’s contract money to go directly back to China, but players’ union official
Billy Hunter said that “after he has received his money, that’s on him,” implying that Yao
could send the money back if that is part of his separate deal with the Chinese government.41 If
Yao did not abide by the rules of this contract, extreme penalties from the Chinese regime were
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possible. It promised to impose drastic measures, such as huge fines, expulsion from the
national team, and would invalidate all of Yao’s overseas contracts.42 It never became public
exactly how much of Yao’s earnings had to be sent home, but sources close to his old team, the
Shanghai Sharks, put the number at around one-third.43 No matter how much money Yao had
to send back to China, he was still far better off than the average Chinese basketball player,
who made the equivalent of $12,500 yearly in 2002.44
The Marketing Machine Takes Over
Once Yao was in the league, the NBA put their Asian marketing efforts into full-throttle. Yao
is exactly the star the NBA desperately wanted to assist with overseas branding. The NBA was
well aware of the grand potential for sponsorship and new television viewers that came with the
arrival of Yao. In addition to the Beijing office and the Chinese NBA website where Yao is
prominent, the 2003 NBA All-Star ballots were developed in Chinese for the first time. Voters
were also allowed to vote online – resulting in a huge surge of Yao votes from his home
country and all of Asia. By allowing the fans to vote online, the NBA funneled millions of
Chinese to their website. This allowed the NBA put a premium on corporate logos placed on
their internet home. The second Asian media tour, which featured exclusive interviews with
Yao for the Chinese media, was launched in March of 2003. The tour followed Yao around
for a span of eight games during his rookie season.45
There is virtually no way the China games would have occurred without Yao.46 The
China games exposed the NBA product to many more Chinese, but that was not all gained by
the league’s trip overseas. In the early 2000s, the NBA generated less than ten per cent of its
revenue internationally, something it desperately wanted to change. Global business was still in
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its infancy in China when Yao Ming was drafted, and the NBA knew a good opportunity when
it saw one. The NBA, along with many other sport organizations, now views the international
market as the place to expand their product most effectively and profitably. The common
outlook among professional sports leagues in North America by 2000 was the market in the
United States was close to its saturation point. “We are a mature business in the U.S. and the
growth is outside the U.S.,” said Heidi Ueberroth, executive vice president of global media
properties for the NBA.47 Many NBA and Yao Ming sponsors, such as Reebok, traveled to
China in order to leverage their investment in the League and the player.
Yao took in over $10 million in revenues from endorsements per year by 2003, which
put him on the same level as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Jeff Gordon, and Venus
Williams.48 Even though Yao did not see all of the money he “earned” from endorsements,
because he had to send a percentage back to China, his take for a still relatively unproven
center was staggering. As the entire situation surrounding Yao is out of the ordinary, it should
come as no surprise that the way endorsements are determined regarding the 7’5’’ center was
also unconventional. From the very beginning, “Team Yao” carefully planned out an
endorsement plan based on a study by students at the University of Chicago. Team Yao was
made up of sports agent Bill Duffy, Bill Sanders, marketing director for BDA Sports
Management, distant Yao cousin and University of Chicago graduate student Erik Zhang, and
University of Chicago business school deputy dean John Huizinga.49 Duffy had been wooing
Yao since 1998 when he played on a San Diego summer league team during his first trip to the
United States.50
Yao became so popular by 2005 that Team Yao feared he would be overexposed. They
were determined to not let that occur, no matter how much of an icon he became. Team Yao
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stuck to their secretive, five year marketing plan. According to Business Week, a former student
at the University of Chicago business school, Aaron Abraham said “We were interested in
protecting him as a brand.” Abraham would not provide more details, as he had to sign a
confidentiality agreement when he left the school. Reebok CEO Paul Fireman chimed in,
saying that so far “Yao’s handlers have done a good job of not rushing him out to every
company, not prostituting him.”51 Yao would not be seen pitching goods for a regional
company or small-town businesses to earn a few quick dollars.
Yao signed a major deal with PepsiCo in February 2003 which was worth seven-
figures. This deal primarily had Yao working with the makers of the sport drink Gatorade, a
subsidiary of PepsiCo. The deal paid dividends very early for PepsiCo; sales were up 30% in
China the following year.52 Sales is really the only way to gauge the value of a sponsorship deal
in China right now, as media market research was only just beginning at the time Yao Ming's
career began.53 PepsiCo (17% current market share) has always trailed chief rival Coca-Cola
(33% current market share) in the Chinese market and was looking to Yao to help them gain
ground.54
Yao did have an endorsement with Nike which predated his arrival with the Rockets (he
saw no money from this deal; only the team benefited financially). The company signed Yao
to a five-year deal in 1998 after watching him play on their own sponsored summer league
team in San Diego. The deal provided Yao with the large shoes he needed at the time; he wears
a size 18.55 Nike CEO Phil Knight had had his eye on the Asian market for a long time before
Yao came along, but he was seen as the perfect fit for Nike (basketball is the main money
maker for the company).
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Nike’s long range plans were evident from as far back as the 1970s when Knight
incorporated a Nike subsidiary started in Taiwan under a different name. This both calculating
and forward looking move was made because China considers Taiwan a breakaway province,
and Nike did not want to alienate the Chinese in any way. During 1990s and early 2000s
basketball's popularity skyrocketed in China (as well as all of Asia). The actions taken by Nike
and Knight were a major factor, if not the biggest, in this equation. The company had been
building basketball courts in both China and Taiwan, while at the same time launching leagues
to play on them.56 During summer months (the NBA off-season), Nike brought NBA
superstars Kobe Bryant (2001) and Vince Carter (2002) to China to visit large cities and to
donate basketball equipment.57 One of the biggest obstacles facing the Chinese desire to
become the world’s dominant sports power has been their lack of quality facilities.58 Nike’s
actions were an effort to help China upgrade their basketball facilities while gaining advantage
in the market, as well as with Yao and his handlers specifically.
In what must have been an extremely dismal development to Nike officials, Yao signed
a deal with Reebok in late 2003 when his five-year contract with Nike ended. Reebok planned
to use Yao for the same reason as other firms. The NBA marketing gurus jumped on the
bandwagon of the Rockets’ center: to tap into the huge marketing possibilities in China and all
of Asia.59 Immediately after signing Yao, Reebok quickly launched their NBA Enigma shoe
endorsed by the Rockets’ center. The company also hired famous basketball scout Sonny
Vaccaro to develop a plan to win over Chinese consumers.60 Reebok CEO Paul Fireman said he
could envision his company earning 25% of the estimated $1 billion sporting shoe business in
China by the time the Beijing Olympics came around. Reebok at the time only did $30 million
a year in sales in China.61
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Another global power able to bring Yao on board was McDonald’s. McDonald’s is the
world’s most popular and recognizable fast food chain and was the “Official Restaurant of the
2004 Olympic Games.” Yao became the first “global ambassador” of McDonald’s when he
signed his deal with the company in early 2004. Yao’s initial McDonald’s television spot is part
of the company’s “Big Mac Rolling Energy” campaign, which features athletes from various
sports explaining that McDonald’s will be feeding Olympians like Yao.62 The ads were shot in
both Houston and Shanghai and started airing in China in September 2004. Yao’s image also
began to appear inside of McDonald's restaurants both in China and the United States.63 Like
most multinational corporations, McDonald’s also had its eye on the expanding Chinese
market. It is likely not a coincidence that McDonald’s announced in Beijing it had extended its
Olympic partnership through the 2012 Games. McDonald’s describes the Chinese market as
“one of our priority growth markets in the world.”64 Clearly Yao was the man McDonald’s
wanted to represent them in China; he is a powerful draw that has a very high profile and is
admired by sports fans all over the nation, as shown by the countrywide reaction during the
China Games.
Some entities are legally using Yao’s image without paying him endorsement money to
move their product. One example of this can be seen by looking at the recent move of ESPN
The Magazine. ESPN The Magazine sees China as a prime location to sell their publication.
Beginning in December of 2004, the magazine published bi-weekly in Chinese print in both
China and Hong Kong, with an initial print run of 60,000. The cover choice for the preview
edition was not a difficult one for the ESPN editors: Yao Ming. This preview edition was
timed to coincide with the Rockets’ exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. The general
manager of the magazine proclaimed this move would “reflect well on the brand”. 65
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Companies such as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, Adidas, and Kodak have also been running
NBA-themed promotions in China without using Yao’s image; only that of the League.66
Kodak sales in China jumped 30% in digital-printing volume once their China Games
promotion began in September 2004.67
By drafting Yao, the Rockets transformed from a forgotten NBA franchise to a prominent
one. The asking price for their arena, which opened in 2003, was boosted.68 Sponsorship
revenue increased by over 300% since the team drafted Yao. The number of corporations
partnering with the team also doubled. The Rockets sold a record number of season-tickets for
the 2004-2005 season.69 The Rockets also boosted Asian-American attendance not only for
home games, but also when they visit other cities.70 Yanjing, a Chinese beer company, signed a
$1 million a year deal with the team upon the drafting of Yao.71 Yao frequently played in the
NBA All-Star Game making eight appearances.
Not everything has quite worked out smoothly once Yao arrived in the USA. Shaquille
O’Neal, then of the Los Angeles Lakers, said in an interview “Tell Yao Ming ‘Ching chong
yang wah ah so’.” This incident sparked a media firestorm and O’Neal was later forced to
apologize after he was seen as being insensitive to Asians – not how the NBA wanted him or
the league to be perceived. After the two first met on the court O’Neal said “Yao Ming is my
brother. The Asian people are my brothers.” Later that season, Yao caused quite a stir when he
arrived for his first All-Star Game press conference wearing an old Chinese national team
sweatshirt. Yao simply said it was comfortable, but the Chinese media hounded him for the
other possible reasons he was wearing it (such as?).72
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Future Outlook
Long-range plans included bringing more NBA games to China, including possibly regular
season contests.73 This seems almost assured based on the early returns the NBA, league
sponsors, and companies promoted by Yao have seen. More corporations soon wanted to be
involved with the NBA in order to tap into the Chinese and Asian markets. Over 50 million
Chinese watched the 2002 NBA Finals on television, even though Yao and the Rockets did not
even qualify for the playoffs that season.74 In just the first two years after Yao arrived in
Houston:
The NBA brought the NBA Jam Session to Shanghai in September 2003 and 2004.
Two more Asian media tours were launched.
Thirteen provincial networks reaching 314 million households in China picked up NBA
programming in 2003-2004, showing 170 games, 30 of which involved the Rockets.
American coach Del Harris coached the Chinese national team at the 2004 Athens
Olympics.
A new NBA office in Shanghai opened.
Michael Jordan toured China for Nike.
The NBA championship trophy toured Chinese cities.
McDonald’s sponsored a joint American-Chinese coaching camp in Beijing.75
There is no question that sponsors of the NBA and Yao capitalized on the 2008 Beijing
Olympics and tied the Rockets center to the event. Beijing 2008 was especially attractive for a
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company like Reebok even though it was not a global TOP Olympic sponsor. With Reebok
featuring Yao in ads in China leading up to the Beijing Olympics, basketball and associated
products increased in popularity. “Kids are going to want to be like Yao now,” said NBA
Commissioner David Stern.76 As Yao himself said “The sponsors are helping me and I am
helping them. It is mutually beneficial.”77
The Yao Ming case is emblemmatic of post-2000 American sport expansion into new
global markets. It has not been all smooth sailing for American sporting enterprises, however.
The NFL's attempt to set up a permanent league in Europe under different names, most recently
NFL Europe, ultimately failed. The League began in 1991 as the World League of American
Football lasting two seasons with some European teams. The league relaunched in Europe only
in 1995 and lasted until 2007 but was mostly sustained in cities near U.S. military bases in
Germany. When the League folded in 2007 the only non-Germany based team was Amsterdam.
The NFL rebooted its global strategy focusing, like the more successful NBA, on support of
locally controlled leagues and promotion of NFL games globally. Additionally, the NFL began
to play regular season games in London at Wembley Stadium with the Jacksonville Jaguars
becoming a regular participant and by 2015 making London a second home city by playing
multiple games a year there. The NHL began playing exhibition pre-season games in Europe in
the 1990s, but with the beginning of a heavily financed Russian-led European League, the
Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2008, the NHL responded by playing regular season
games in Europe as well with four teams opening their 2008-09 seasons in Europe (New York
Rangers, Ottawa Senators, Pittsburgh Penguins and Tampa Bay Lightning). The NHL
suspended regular season games in Europe in 2012, however.
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With expanded pay television and online platforms for viewing, playing large numbers
of games overseas diminished in significance for the NHL particularly as it faced several
internal challenges. Most European hockey arenas are far smaller than NHL ones, whereas, the
NFL can generate massive media hype in one country and fill stadiums of 80,000 plus in places
like London or Barcelona.
The NCAA got in on the global market as well beginning in 1988 with the Emerald Isle
Classic in Dublin between Boston College and Army. The 1996 game between Notre Dame
and Army significantly was the first non-Gaelic Athletic Association sporting event ever held
at its iconic Croke Park stadium. Subsequent games returned to Ireland in 2012 with Notre
Dame and Boston College, the two Catholic universities with the most Irish links visiting in
rotation biennially. Irish airline company Aer Lingus, which flies several routes to the USA,
took naming sponsorship of the games from 2016.78
MLS teams regularly play touring European teams which frequently tour to the USA
during the summer off season in Europe. The European teams see the American marketplace as
one of their most lucrative and MLS benefits from demonstrating it can play with the best in
the world. The best attended soccer match in the USA, however, was held at the University of
Michigan stadium on 4 August 2014 between Real Madrid and Manchester United attracting
over 109,000 spectators and selling out the stadium.79 MLS is attracting increasing global
interest as the Seattle Sounders have had several of their home games (especially against arch-
rivals the Portland Timbers) rank in the top five of weekly attendance globally. With a surge in
support surrounding the USA men's team in the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil and the USA
winning the Women's World Cup title for the third time in Canada in 2015, the USA's position
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in soccer accelerated at break-neck speed. Perhaps the most audacious move by the USA into
the political economy of global sport began in May 2015, however.
When Two Worlds Collide: The USA vs FIFA
The revelations by the FBI and the US Justice Department in May 2015 involving the arrest
and indictment of FIFA officials left many non-soccer media experts stunned. Those who have
worked in, and research on, soccer for many years, however, wondered why it took so long for
someone to topple FIFA's house of cards. Academics from the University of Brighton, John
Sugden and Alan Tomlinson, exposed corrupt practices within FIFA going back to the 1990s in
a ground-breaking 1998 book. Investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, who originally
exposed corruption in Olympic bidding in Lords of the Rings, similarly exposed this culture
within FIFA. We all knew, yet the world allowed the charade to continue.80
While most assessment has concentrated on a culture of corruption which has developed
inside the corridors of footballing power, what this particular situation demonstrates is the
growing significance of soccer in the USA and the increasing influence of American
geopolitical interests in the global game. Aston Villa, Liverpool, Manchester United and
Arsenal among others have American owners and investors.81 Major American transnational
corporations such as Nike, Visa and Coca Cola are major sponsors of FIFA and other football
organizations. However, there are many more companies and interests who want to profit from
the international football marketplace. Declan Hill, Canadian investigative journalist and
Oxford PhD, now also working with the University of Brighton, has published two books
exposing the level of corruption in international soccer, including World Cup matches, linked
to match-fixing, a global practice just beginning to infiltrate US professional sport.82 Trinidad
20
and Tobago official Jack Warner, when President of CONCACAF and a Vice-President of
FIFA, allegedly sold votes to potential hosts of World Cups.83 Many others as we have seen
both inside and outside of FIFA have been attempting to profit, often by what the American
legal system views as illegitimate means.
As the largest single sports marketplace and largest market within CONCACAF, the
USA is positioned to play a significant role in global football in the twenty-first century. While
many laws in the USA protect corporate interests, these laws also have strong provisions
against openly corrupt business practices. Leverage and influence are one thing, overt bribery
and money laundering are something quite different according to US business practice.
Sports have been recognised for quite some time in the USA as "more than a game".
Major League Baseball (MLB) had for over a century exemption from provisions of American
anti-trust law. This has been challenged in recent years. Congress intervened in the illegal drug
use in baseball when it felt the sport was not fully addressing the issue. Though MLB is a
private organization, the companies and doctors supplying performance enhancing substances
fell under medical and health care acts and individual players were called to testify. It was US
efforts that forced the International Olympic Committee to address corrupt practices, at least in
part, in the scandals surrounding the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics whose
organizational committee was headed by Mitt Romney. At the same time, Utah congressmen
planted plenty of "pork-barrel" funding by attaching infrastructural monies to other bills, which
would assist Utah in holding the Games. American congressional legislators also challenged
the right of National Football League (NFL) teams to relocate to other cities as they sought
better stadia and deals from host cities and states. ( Under the guise of protecting taxpayers, the
League was forced to take action allowing Cleveland, Ohio to keep the Browns’ name and
21
history and to put a new franchise there after the former team relocated to Baltimore (who's
original team fled to Indianapolis in 1984). When a lockout of referees by the NFL was thought
to have led to a blown call changing the result of a game, politicians, including President
Obama spoke out and pushed the NFL to resolve the dispute.84 President Obama and others
realize the increasinly global links of US sport actively supporting US World Cup soccer teams
and continuing to back State Department sports diplomacy programs.
The challenges for global sports organizations, businesses and other interests is to
understand the climate in which they operate, but first and foremost to operate in a transparent
manner. In this, they have to exceed standards applied in normal global business practices as
regulation is even weaker in sport. In a revealing article about the power of the World Anti-
Doping Agency (WADA), Verner Moeller asked "who is watching the watchers?," in other
words who is able to hold FIFA or the International Olympic Committee or WADA
accountable for its actions.85 FIFA has declared itself custodian of the "people's game," "the
beautiful game," a sport popular amongst all ages around the world, as such it (as well as FIFA
officials) must be held accountable for the management of the sport or be replaced by other
group(s) who will practice ethical standards of good stewardship. The FBI and US Justice
Department may not be everyone's choice for holding FIFA accountable, but through American
action supported by Swiss investigations, we may learn how pervasive and widespread is the
culture of corruption haunting the world's favorite sport.
Conclusion
Though American sports history is often written without much reference to the rest of the
world, it is clear that modern sports in the USA, while unique in many respects, cannot be
22
viewed with an isolated lens any longer. For at least 150 years, American sporting stars have
tested themselves against international competition; migrants have integrated themselves into
the American melting pot through sports participation; and sporting entrepreneurs have sought
to profit from the sports marketplace both domestically and internationally. For 50 years or
more, a migrant labor system has become increasingly important within NCAA competitions
and international players have become stars in baseball and basketball in particular. Many
international golf and tennis players base themselves in the USA. The United States exports
sporting talent all over the world and American sporting business interests play significant roles
in the global sports business marketplace. The Boston Red Sox have invested in the Japanese
professional baseball league and its parent company also controls Liverpool Football Club
(soccer) in England. The New York Yankees sponsor the Chinese Baseball League. The NFL
plays regular season games in London, England, Major League Baseball does so in Asia and
the NHL does the same in Europe. MLS teams compete in the CONCACAF Gold Cup
tournament which is a regional version of the Champions League in Europe.
With American political and economic interests spanning the globe there is no doubt
sport will continue to play an important role. The United States Department of State has long
recognized this, running sporting ambassador programs since the 1960s. Government
sponsored sports ambassador and development programs fly in the face of the reluctance of the
US government to become directly involved in American sports programs. The USA remains
the only advanced capitalist society without a ministry responsible for domestic sport. Despite
partial American "exceptionalism" in sport there is no doubt American sport is enmeshed in the
global sports system and likely to be more and more engaged globally throughout the twenty-
first century and beyond, particularly as US leagues play regular season games overseas, and
23
European elite soccer teams tour the USA regularly in their off seasons. American-based
companies are key sponsors of sport globally, but the USA faces challenges internationally as
their is a seductiveness of American culture and sports while many have serious concerns about
the janus-faced approach of American "interests" throughout the world.
NOTES
1 I outline the history of British sports in the United States from 1865 to 1930 in a forthcoming
work, Sport and the Making of the British World. An initial version of this work was presented
at the Lives and Deaths of American Sporting Pastimes at Pennsylvania State University in
2012 entitled "The Comparative Failures of Cricket, Soccer and Rugby to become National
Pastimes in the USA."
2 Mark Lampster, Spalding's World Tour: The Epic Adventure That Took Baseball Around the
Globe (New York: Public Affairs Books); Gerald R. Gems The Athletic Crusade: Sport and
American Cultural Imperialism (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012).
3 For the best discussion of globalization and baseball, see Alan Klein, The Globalization of
Major League Baseball (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).
4 Gems, The Athletic Crusade.
24
5 see John Nauright, Long Run to Freedom: Sport, Cultures and Identities in South Africa
(Morgantown: Fitness Information Technology, 2010); Alan Gregor Cobley, Rules of the
Game: Struggles in Black Recreation and Social Welfare Policy in South Africa (Westview,
CT.: Greenwood Press, 1997); Ray Phillips, The Bantu are Coming (London: Student Christian
Movement Press, 1930).
6 Mike Marquese, "Global sport, American sport" Colourlines (2000). Accessed on 7 July 2015
from the World Wide Web: http://www.mikemarqusee.com/?p=58.
7 The role of Nike in the global marketplace is outlined by George Sage, Globalizing Sport:
How Organizations, Corporations and Media are Changing Sport (Paradigm Press, 2010).
Nike, founded in Oregon by Phil Knight was a pioneer in off-shore production of sporting
footwear building its early reputation through controversial sports stars such as John McEnroe
and Andre Agassi in tennis and Charles Barkley in basketball. With Jordan, Nike began to
mainstream its marketing image more fully and did much to create him as the first real US
global mega-star athlete. Also see, Walter LaFeber, Michael Jordan and the New Global
Capitalism (New York: W. W. Norton, 2002).
8 John Nauright & John Ramfjord, "Who owns England’s game? American professional
sporting influences and foreign ownership in the Premier League," Soccer and Society, 11:4
(2010), 428-441.
25
9 For example the two leading goalkeepers for the USA in World Cup 2014 were Tim Howard
who played for Everton and Brad Guzan who played for Aston Villa, both in the Premier
League in England.
10 This section is developed from an earlier paper, see Ben Keeler and John Nauright, "Team
Yao: Yao Ming, the NBA and selling sport to China," American Journal of Chinese Studies,
12:2 (2005), 203-218.
11 Stefan Fastis, Peter Wonnacott & Maureen Tkacik, “Chinese Basketball Star Is Big Business
for NBA: NBA and Nike Are Banking Yao Ming Will Open a Huge Chinese Market,” The
Wall Street Journal, 22 October 2002.
12 John Lombardo, “‘The twenty most influential people: professional basketball,” Sports
Business Journal, 7:25 (2004), 19.
13 Peter Hessler, “Home and away: Yao Ming’s journaly from China to the NBA,” The New
Yorker, 1 December 2003, 65-81.
14 “Grooming the game: NBA’s relationship with China, National Basketball Association.
Retreived 17 October 2004 from the World Wide Web:
http://www.nba.com/china2004/timeline.html
15 “Grooming the Game.”
26
16 Hessler, “Home and away.”
17 “Grooming the game.”
18 “Grooming the game”.
19 “The Yao crowd,” The Economist, 9 August 2003, 55.
20 Frederik Balfour, “Game plan B: sponsors find sports marketing in China is no slam dunk,”
Business Week, 15 September 2003, 56.
21 “Grooming the game.”
22 Balfour, “Game plan B.”
23 Peter Wonacott, “Yao-mania: hoop star’s China visit evokes Beatles, 1964,” The Wall Street
Journal, 15 October 2004, B1.
24 Wonacott, “Yao-mania.”
25 Stephanie Hoo, “NBA brings its game to Beijing,” Associated Press Online, retrieved 17
October 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://www.theapn.com/newap/D85O6R2O1.html.
27
26 John Lombardo, “Global trade,” Sports Business Journal, 7:25 (2004), 21-25.
27 Robert H. Van Horn, Jr., “Sports development and training in China,” Mankind Quarterly,
29: 1/2 (1988), 143-162; John Nauright, "China and global soccer." World Football Forum,
Moscow, May 2015; "Awakening the Sleeping Giant: China and Global Football," FC Business
Magazine, August 2015.
28 Craig S. Smith & Mike Wise, “Eying NBA: China will make athletes pay,” The New York
Times, 25 April 2002, A1.
29 Hessler, “Home and away.”
30 Hessler, “Home and away.”
31 Hessler, “Home and away.”
32 “Grooming the game.”
33 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
34 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
28
35 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
36 Tom Lowry & Dexter Roberts, “Wow! Yao!,” Business Week, 25 October 2004, p. 86.
37 Smith & Wise, “Eying NBA.”
38 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
39 George Vecsey, “Chinese still stuck in the past,” The New York Times, 1 May 2002, D1.
40 Hessler, “Home and away.”
41 Smith & Wise, “Eying NBA.”
42 Smith & Wise, “Eying NBA.”
43 Lowry & Roberts, “Wow! Yao!”
44 Alkman Granitsas & Ben Dolven, “Show me the money”, Far Eastern Economic Review,
165 (14), 2002, 38-41.
45 “Grooming the game.”
29
46 Lombardo, “Global trade.”
47 Lombardo, “The twenty most influential people”.
48 Rick Fisher, “Selling Yao: corporate America is impressed with the 7-foot 5 inch NBA star’s
marketability,” The Washington Times, 7 February 2003, C1.
49 Tom Fowler, “Yao’s ad potential bears fruit with Apple tv spot,” The Houston Chronicle, 8
January 2003, B1, B5.
50 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
51 Lowry & Roberts, “Wow! Yao!”
52 Lowry & Roberts, “Wow! Yao!”
53 Balfour, “Game plan B".
54 Peter Wonacott & Betsy McKay, “Yao is a pitchman torn between two colas,” The Wall
Street Journal, 16 May 2003, B1.
55 Smith & Wise, “Eying NBA.”
30
56 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
57 “Grooming the game.”
58 Van Horn, “Sports development and training in China.”
59 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
60 S. Holmes & F. Arner, “A new game afoot for Adidas and Reebok,” Business Week Online, 5
December 2003.
61 Lowry & Roberts, “Wow! Yao!”
62 Liz Clarke, “McDonald’s goes for gold with Olympic sponsorships,” The Washington Post,
30 August 2004, E1.
63 Arun Sudhaman, “Yao Ming stars in first McDonald’s ad spots,” Media, 4 June 2004, 13.
64 Clarke, "McDonald’s goes for gold.”
65 Robert Adams, “ESPN magazine sets its sights on China,” Sports Business Journal, 7 (24),
2004, 7.
31
66 Fastis et al, “A global journal report”
67 Wonacott, “Yao-mania.”
68 Fastis et al, “A global journal report”
69 Lowry & Roberts, “Wow! Yao!”
70 Chih-Ming Wang, “Capitalizing on the big man: Yao Ming, Asian America, and the China
global,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 5:2 (2004), 263-278.
71 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
72 Hessler, “Home and away.”
73 Lombardo, “Global trade.”
74 Balfour, “Game plan B.”
75 Fowler, "Yao's Ad;” “Grooming the Game;” Wonacott, “Yao-mania.”
76 Fastis et al, “A global journal report.”
77 Wonacott, “Yao-mania.”
32
78 For more on Irish NCAA games, see http://collegefootballireland.com.
79 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/football/teams/manchester-united/11005513/Manchester-
United-v-Real-Madrid-109000-sell-out-highlights-extent-of-footballs-breakthrough-into-the-
USA.html.
80 John Sugden and Alan Tomlinson, FIFA and the Contest for World Football (London: Polity
Press, 1998); Andrew Jennings, Foul!: The Secret World of FIFA: Bribes, Vote Rigging and
Ticket Scandals (London: HarperSport, 2008).
81 Nauright and Ramfjord, "Who owns England's game".
82 Declan Hill, The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2010),
reprint edition; The Insider's Guide to Match-Fixing in Football (Toronto: Anne McDermid &
Associates, 2013).
83 See John Nauright & Anand Rampersad, "Reform or revolution: The future of sport
governance, organisation and business in Caribbean after the fall of Jack Warner. Paper
presented at the Play the Game Conference, Aarhus, Denmark, October, 2015. Available online
at www.playthegame.org.
33
84 (http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2012/sep/25/politicians-grab-political-football-run-
with-it/).
85 Verner Moeller, "One step too far – about WADA's whereabouts rule," International Journal
of Sport Policy and Politics, 3:1 (2011), 177-190.
... What the E-Sports development means for other sports and for overall societal health remains to be seen. International leagues continue to saturate the Chinese market which is good business, but creates challenges domestically (Nauright 2016), particularly as European and North American leagues continue to flood the market. It is clear, however, that the largest long-term growth for global sports business remains in China and in Asia more generally as we head towards the 2030s. ...
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In summer 2002, Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball player from Shanghai, was drafted by the Houston Rockets as the overall first‐pick. His advent to the NBA quickly brought about a phenomenal impact, both economically and culturally. He was not only voted by the fans to the All‐Star game and replaced Shaquille O'Neal as one of the starting five in the Western Conference team, but also boosted the ticket sales of the Rockets' game to an increasing Asian American spectatorship. Instantly, he is more than the ‘little giant’ from China, but the great ‘yellow hope’ for Asian Pacific Americans — representing the ‘Chinese’ and the Chinese market in the age of globalization. Considering entertainment sports as a distinct place for transnational labour and commodity transactions, this paper takes Yao and his proliferating cultural economic impact as an occasion to analyse and critique the China Global as a national‐capitalist fantasy that is materialized at the expense of ‘stylized’ bodies. Acknowledging, although not endorsing, Julianne Malveaux's crude metaphor of basketball plantation, this paper suggests that Yao articulates a different mode of global capitalism than that represented by Michael Jordan in the 1990s. This mode of global capitalism is not so much about the labour of conquest as epitomized by black athletes, but about the attraction of the market and the availability of labour supply as inscribed in the history of Chinese immigration. The American dream of Yao, ultimately, is the capitalist and nationalist desire for ‘bigness’.
This section is developed from an earlier paperTeam Yao: Yao Ming, the NBA and selling sport to China
This section is developed from an earlier paper, see Ben Keeler and John Nauright, "Team Yao: Yao Ming, the NBA and selling sport to China," American Journal of Chinese Studies, 12:2 (2005), 203-218.
Chinese Basketball Star Is Big Business for NBA: NBA and Nike Are Banking Yao Ming Will Open a Huge Chinese Market
  • Stefan Fastis
  • Maureen Tkacik
Stefan Fastis, Peter Wonnacott & Maureen Tkacik, " Chinese Basketball Star Is Big Business for NBA: NBA and Nike Are Banking Yao Ming Will Open a Huge Chinese Market, " The Wall Street Journal, 22 October 2002.