The start of the new baseball season and Washington’s never-ending debate about American decline offer an opportunity to address a perplexing question: Given America’s sports obsession, why haven’t its marquee sports had more success in establishing themselves outside America’s borders? While baseball, for instance, may be the most international of America’s biggest sports in terms of players’ nationalities, it hasn’t gained as much traction around the world as one one might expect.
Of the 856 players listed on MLB rosters on Monday, 241, or 28 percent, were born outside the United States. That’s a fairly high number when compared with other major American sports. Only around 20 percent of NBA players were born abroad, and, as of 2011, over 95 percent of NFL players were Americans.
The NFL has had the toughest time expanding internationally, as my colleague Josh Keating explained ahead of this year’s Super Bowl. The league has tried to bolster its international presence by playing annual games in London, but that effort has so far achieved fairly lackluster results. The following description of an NFL linebacker’s encounter with some British kids tells the story pretty well:
James Laurinaitis, when asked what position he played for St. Louis, informed the children that he was a linebacker. "And they’re like – they have this puzzled look on their face," he recounted. "They don’t even know what to ask after that."
The NBA, by contrast, has seen gangbusters success abroad, and now boasts a deep lineup of superstars with international credentials. Dirk Nowitzki (Germany), Pau Gasol (Spain), and Tony Parker (France) are part of a new generation of basketball players capable of spreading the sport’s appeal to parts of the world where basketball remains popular but has a tough time competing with soccer.
But the smart money on where the NBA can expand lies on China. Soccer is far less entrenched there, and the NBA’s telegenic superstars have had no difficulty breaking in — China, for some reason, adores Kobe Bryant. Jeremy Lin’s breakout season with the New York Knicks last year — and the ensuing fan frenzy in China — underscored what may be an underexploited love for the game there. Lebron James may have roots in Ohio, but he has proven a surprisingly adept cultural ambassador. According to one survey, he is the most popular Western celebrity on Chinese social media, ahead of Kobe.
So where does this leave baseball? While both the MLB and the NBA have embraced foreign players, professional baseball has arguably gone further than the NBA in putting foreign-born players front-and-center (think Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Robinson Canó), and it’s done so for a longer period of time (think Roberto Clemente or Fernando Valenzuela and the storm of "Fernandomania" he ignited in the early 1980s. Basketball might be the international upstart on the block, but baseball is still king.
That said, baseball’s enduring regional popularity poses a problem for the sport’s international appeal. A quick scan of Monday’s Opening Day rosters reveals how the sport’s popularity remains centered in the Americas:
As it has each year since MLB began releasing this annual data in 1995, the Dominican Republic again leads the Major Leagues with 89 players born outside the U.S, the fourth-most the nation has ever produced on Opening Day rosters (highs: 99 in 2007, 91 in 2005 and 95 in 2012). Venezuela ranks second with 63 players, its second-highest total ever on Opening Day rosters (high: 66 in 2012). Canada ranks third with 17 players, its second-highest Opening Day figure ever (behind only its 19 in 2007). Cuba is fourth overall with 15 players, surpassing its 11 in 2002 and 2011-2012 for its highest total since at least 1995. Rounding out the totals are Mexico (14); Puerto Rico (13); Japan (11); Colombia and Panama (4 each); Curaçao (3); Australia, Nicaragua and South Korea (2 each); and the Netherlands and Taiwan (1 each).
With the exception of a handful of extremely talented Japanese players, baseball has not managed to attract talent outside the Americas in the same way the NBA has.
The stage seems to be set for the NBA to stake out its claim as America’s next global sport.