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Diversifying team rosters for profit

This is an excerpt from Sports in American History 3rd Edition With HKPropel Access by Gerald R. Gems,Linda J. Borish & Gertrud Pfister.

Major League Baseball also experienced growing pains when its Montreal Expos franchise failed to attract enough fans in French-speaking Quebec. During the 2003 and 2004 seasons, the team played some of its “home” games in Puerto Rico; before the 2005 season, it moved to Washington, D.C., and became the Washington Nationals. By that time, the internationalization of the game had come far enough that foreign athletes made up 28 percent of MLB rosters and nearly $100 million in international revenue, an 800 percent increase in revenue from 1989 (Jozsa 8, 17).

Team owners began importing top Japanese stars as well. Bringing in the best athletes might be expensive, but owners incurred little development cost in training these proven stars. Ichiro Suzuki provided virtually guaranteed value for the Seattle Mariners, and he set the MLB record for hits in a season with 262 in 2004. As early as 2001, Seattle had established a foothold in Asia by broadcasting its games to Japan. In 2006, the Boston Red Sox paid more than $51 million just for the rights to negotiate with Japanese pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka then signed him to a six-year contract worth much more (Browne).

Major League Baseball teams discovered yet another way to maximize profit and establish greater parity in the league: hiring young general managers steeped in the science of analytics. Their judicious selection of players, reliance on tendencies, and consequent strategies enabled small-market teams to compete with large urban markets and turned perennial losers into winners, as evidenced by the Kansas City Royals’ defeat of the New York Mets in 2015. The analytics revolution had become pervasive throughout professional sports during the preceding decade, with a growing influence on football and basketball as well.

As baseball, basketball, and football expanded their domains, the NHL followed with its own strategies for growth. In 1997, the league played a game in Japan; with the fall of the Iron Curtain, it began importing more European and Russian players to its ranks. Alex Ovechkin, the superstar left winger for the Washington Capitals, scored his 400th NHL goal in the 2013–2014 season, while Jaromir Jagr reached the 700-goal mark a year later as a right winger for the New Jersey Devils (Dusterburg; Stubits).

Like baseball, the NBA experienced labor strife, including a strike in 1998, and it, too, turned to international players to partially alleviate costs. The value of such athletes became clear in 2002, when Team USA lost to Yugoslavia, Spain, and Argentina in the World Championships, finishing thoroughly embarrassed in sixth place. Two years later, the United States finished in third place at the Athens Olympic Games. NBA clinics throughout the world helped promote the game, as did NBA exhibitions in places such as the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Spain, France, Italy, Greece, and Japan. Such locations might provide owners with future players at lower cost, not to mention current income from sales of NBA merchandise, such as caps, jerseys, and jackets. In 2002, the NBA broadcast its regular-season games to 212 countries (Jozsa 110) and drafted 17 foreign players, among them 7-foot-5-inch (226-centimeter) Yao Ming of China. The next year, an estimated 10 million Chinese families tuned in to NBA broadcasts, opening the world’s biggest market to NBA products (Jozsa 17). The nature of Yao Ming’s contract, a large part of which devolved to the Chinese government, meant that sports skills had become an exportable commodity in that nation’s communist economy.

The number of international players in the NBA continued to grow as the league sought larger markets to promote its product and its personalities. By the 2015–2016 season, the NBA counted 100 players from 37 different countries and territories. As part of its 2013–2014 schedule, the league enacted the NBA Global Games, with 12 teams playing exhibition as well as regular-season games in Brazil, China, Turkey, Mexico, the Philippines, Taiwan, Mexico, and England. League games were broadcast to 215 countries as basketball challenged soccer as the world’s most popular sport (NBA Communications). By 2019, the NBA had garnered $2.7 billion from the U.S. media and $500 million from international sources, and its lucrative franchises attracted foreign owners. With eyes on the future, it hoped to attract franchises in China and India, potentially the world’s largest markets (Ozanian).

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