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US pro teams give 'Away Game' a whole new meaning

The Minnesota Vikings run on to the field before their game in September against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London.
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The Minnesota Vikings run on to the field before their game in September against the Pittsburgh Steelers in London.

The Houston Rockets play an NBA preseason game against the Indiana Pacers Thursday—in Manila. The two teams will also square off Sunday, in Taipei. The San Francisco 49ers play the Jacksonville Jaguars later this month, for the second NFL game to be held this year ... in London.

And the Los Angeles Dodgers open their 2014 season next March with two games against division rivals the Arizona Diamondbacks in Sydney—the first time MLB has played regular games in Australia.

This shuffling of pro teams to far-off places may seem out of order to American fans, but the moves are part of a growing trend to globalize U.S. sports, say analysts, and it's not likely to abate anytime soon.

"The American pro leagues have all had international offices for quite a long time," said Laurence DeGaris, professor of marketing at the University of Indianapolis.

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"But the main reason for them staging more events overseas is because the U.S. sports market is very mature and cluttered, so the real growth opportunities lie outside the country," DeGaris said.

"And since it's an existing product and minimal additional costs, it's been a profitable venture," he added.

"If you want to be a global sport, you have to play in the overseas markets," said Paul Archey, senior vice president of international business for Major League Baseball.

"It's about the media buildup, the business partnering and getting the local fans to attend," he said. "It's a must as it gives you a local presence. You have to play globally."

Overseas potential is great

It's estimated that Major League Baseball collects somewhere in the hundreds of millions of dollars in international revenue (out of a yearly $7.5 billion), which includes television deals in foreign countries. The National Basketball Association is reported to reap about 10 percent of league revenue (total league and team yearly revenue is $5.5 billion) from international operations.

The National Hockey League, which has played games overseas since 1938, generates more than $1 billion from NHL-licensed product sales worldwide, according to the league. NHL television programming, including NHL regular season games, the NHL All Star Game, the Stanley Cup Finals and NHL Power Week, are available in more than 160 countries.

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Only a small portion of the National Football League's $9 billion in yearly revenue comes from overseas, but NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has set a target figure of $25 billion in yearly revenue by 2027, which would include more from international operations.

While overseas revenues seem low in the total picture, the potential is great, said Eric Schwarz, professor of business sports at Saint Leo University.

"When the U.S. serves a market of some 320 million people and the global market has about 9 billion people, each league wants to gain a piece of that 9 billion pie," he said.

NBA ahead of other sports

If one league is slightly ahead of the others in reaching a global audience, it's probably the NBA, said analysts.

"There are more NBA fans in China than in the U.S., so it's a very smart move by the NBA to invest and make the game global," said Ray Katz, a managing partner at the sports marketing firm Source1 Sports.

The NBA has some 14 offices overseas and has a long history of being the most global of sports leagues, according to an NBA spokesman, who said that by the end of the preseason games, the NBA will have staged a total of 146 games in 20 countries since 1978.

"The NBA is doing a lot through the growth of TV and broadband to reach a global audience," said Shawn McBride, an executive at Ketchum Sports & Entertainment.

That global effect is having a direct impact on the game, Schwarz said.

"The exposure the NBA has in other countries has helped it attract players," he said. "You're seeing players from Europe, South America, Africa and Asia play in the league on a regular basis."

NFL changes game plan

In contrast to basketball, one sport facing some difficulty in finding a global audience is the NFL, said Sanyin Siang, who is executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics at Duke University.

"The NFL has more challenges, as the other sports are more popular overseas," Siang said. "It's easier to play baseball or basketball or soccer, in that you don't need more than balls or sticks. With American football it's not so easy to play."

The NFL made a huge bet internationally when it started NFL Europe, also known as the World League, in 1991 with five teams in Germany and one in the Netherlands. But it closed down in 2007 due to a switch in business strategy, according to the NFL.

"Compared to the expense of NFL Europe and a full league, occasional regular season games in places like London are a better cost-effective strategy," said University of Indianapolis professor DeGaris.

The new strategy includes more access to a global audience through the media. The NFL has seen its lineup of international broadcast, online and mobile partners grow to more than 100 from 77 since 2010.

"It's easy to get sports content anywhere these days," said Adam Chase, a sports media lawyer at Dow Lohnes. "Anyone with a broadband connection can get the games on TV or the Internet, so besides playing live games, there's plenty of opportunity to reach international audiences through the media."

Alienating American fans?

If there's any penalty for all this globalization of U.S. sports, however, it could be alienating the American fan who could miss out on live games played in the states, said DeGaris.

"Overseas games don't add to the U.S. fan experience," he said. "American sports fans tend to be chauvinistic and isolated when it comes to sports.They have a strong ownership of their teams."

But another analyst sees it differently.

"The number of games overseas versus domestically is insignificant," said Saint Leo University's Schwarz.

"People are still showing up at the games here and watching them at home," he contended. "Losing will play a bigger role in attendance than playing overseas."

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Some Americans are embracing sports globalization even to the point of following their teams overseas, said Tom Ellingson, co-founder and CEO of sports travel event website Fandeavor

"Our overall business of U.S. fans traveling oversees to watch professional sports teams from the main four leagues is less than 10 percent of our overall business," Ellingson said. "But as more and more games are being played internationally, that's one of the fastest-growing segments of Fandeavor."

'Sports fan born every minute'

The effort to actually have American pro league teams based in foreign cities is still a work in progress. The leagues do not have plans to put teams overseas, at least for now.

NBA Commissioner David Stern said NBA expansion to Europe is probably at least a decade away and that it likely would make sense to add several clubs there at once. NFL Commissioner Goodell said his focus is on the teams playing in London but that, "The ultimate goal is to continue to expand our game." On Monday, the NFL announced that there will be three games played in London next season—up from this year's two.

MLB isn't planning any teams based outside of North America but will keep having American clubs play internationally while continuing to support the World Baseball Classic, the international tournament created by MLB.

To help its international efforts, the NHL will temporarily suspend play for more than two weeks in February when the 2014 Winter Olympics are held in Sochi, Russia, to let players go to their national teams.

Even U.S. professional boxing is trying to tap potentially lucrative overseas markets. American promoter Top Rank will hold a big-ticket bout between Manny Pacquiao and Brandon Rios in The Venetian Macao in Macau, China, on Nov. 24. Organizers are calling it the biggest pro bout ever held in China. Global superstar Pacquiao trains in Los Angeles, which is also Rios' hometown.

All this means is that globalization of American sports is here to stay, say analysts.

"I don't see this slowing down at all," said sports media lawyer Chase. "There's too much potential overseas."

"The sports leagues almost have to do this," said Siang. "They have to grow their markets and if you think about it, sports is a great way to bring people together. There's a sports fan born every minute."

—By CNBC's Mark Koba. Follow him on Twitter @MarkKobaCNBC.

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