Sports is on the cusp of international growth


DUBAI 29 January 2019: Sports are becoming more universal all the time. Some, like football, have long been popular all around the globe, and likely will be as long as mankind plays sports. What we’re seeing lately though is that a world that feels smaller by the day is bringing about easier access to different athletes, teams, leagues, and entire sports in places it might not have been available before.

Emirates News 24|7 touched on one example fairly recently, with the American MLS team New York City FC set to train in Abu Dhabi – something that would likely not have been feasible for any but the wealthiest of teams 10 or 20 years ago.

This doesn’t mean that every sport and every league can gain a massive following in every country. There simply isn’t room for everything, and different populations and communities will always pick their favorites. For instance, football has caught on quite nicely in the United States, but is still far from the most popular sport there.

Nevertheless, various changes are giving some sports more of a chance at complete international popularity. Whether it’s teams’ and athletes’ ability to travel in the modern world, fans’ ability to follow along with news and results online and through apps, or even the rapidly increasing prevalence of live sports streaming opportunities, everything in this category seems to be becoming more global.

Three sports in particular come to mind.

Tennis: Tennis is already a fairly global sport, with tournaments played all over the world, and athletes reaching the pro ranks from dozens and dozens of different countries. Attend a major tournament anywhere from New York City, to Dubai, to Melbourne, and you’ll find crowds packed to capacity. At the same time however, tennis has arguably been held back in a way by the fact that the same handful of athletes have dominated it for nearly 20 years. Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Rafael Nadal, Maria Sharapova, and Novak Djokovic have essentially been the faces of the sport for all of this time, which almost numbs us to just how many countries have players to root for.

This appears to be shifting. With this class of players at least beginning to age out, the young athletes who are poised to take over the sport come from every corner of the globe. On the men’s side alone, reasonable lists of the players who could take over the sport include athletes from Austria, Australia, Germany, Canada, Great Britain, Russia, and South Korea – to say nothing of the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece), Frances Tiafoe (United States), Lucas Pouille (France), and Borna Coric (Croatia), all of whom have made wonderful showings in January’s Australian Open.

Simply put, the sport is taking on an even more international look, and with this happening just as services like the Tennis Channel and individual apps for big tournaments are making it easier to track results and stream matches, the sport is poised for real growth.

Baseball: Baseball already has more international popularity than it tends to get credit for. Many look at it largely as an American sport, and it’s true that the MLB is the richest and best league in the world, and a place international stars strive to reach. That said, there are entire regions including East Asia and the Caribbean and Central America in particular that are as passionate if not more so than the Americans about the sport. Additionally, there have been reports in recent years of the sport growing in Europe, and even some African countries like Mozambique and South Africa have been mentioned in a similar vein.

This natural expansion should lead to a more international game in the future, and will be helped along by the World Baseball Classic – still a relatively young event – also. But other factors will help baseball to grow too. Primarily, the appearance of a U.S. betting market is going to make the MLB all the more interesting to people watching from around the world. According to reports from a trusted bookmaking resource, MLB revenues jumped to $10.3 billion last year, without a gambling revenue stream factored in. That gives you an idea of the scope of the interest already, which may just compound once people can bet more easily on the sport. Additionally, we’re starting to see the MLB do more deliberate outreach, namely in the form of a brief London series planned in the summer of 2019 between two of the league’s best teams (the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox).

Cricket: Here the conversation is somewhat U.S.-centric, but it’s still a conversation worth having given that this is essentially the one massive market that’s still missing in international cricket. This is typically seen as the world’s second most popular sport, and yet it’s all but ignored by the American market, which seems significant given that the country’s population well exceeds 300 million, and many of them adore sports. One article suggested that the exclusion has its roots in the game’s popularity in the British Empire, which is to say that once the former British colonies gained independence in the late 18th century, they were loathe to adopt the colonial sport.

This theory actually makes some sense when you consider that the true international hot spots of cricket are basically a map of places once ruled by Britain. It appears the game did spread this way – just not to the U.S., where baseball became the popular alternative.

The same article that pointed out this connection to the British Empire, however, noted that there are budding agreements to bring televised and streamed cricket to U.S. audiences, effectively making something that seems wholly foreign to most Americans accessible and easy. This doesn’t mean the sport will gain 300 million-plus fans overnight, but it does mean that cricket is gaining a foothold in America. Should it catch on there, it will become about the closest thing we have a true, global sport outside of football.