Is baseball popular outside of the United States

US sports

The big hit

It's the speed baby Why basketball is a global export item, but baseball is not.

Text: Steffan Heuer
Illustration: Jan Robert Dünnweller

• From Japanese Aikido to dwarf throwing in Australia: When it comes to sport, the world is anything but a global village. In Germany, the three most popular sports with viewers are soccer with 34 percent, followed by ski jumping with 14 percent and biathlon with 13 percent, while athletics and car racing come fourth and fifth.

In the United States, things are very different. More than a third of all respondents choose American football, eleven percent for basketball, followed by baseball and, far behind, soccer with just seven percent. Pan to China: There table tennis and badminton are the most popular, followed by basketball and soccer.

If you look at global statistics, soccer is the undisputed leader with around four billion fans. But another ball game from North America has developed into a lucrative and rapidly growing export hit, with billions in deals for broadcast rights and sportswear: basketball. The fan base is estimated at well over 800 million people.

Allegedly America's favorite pastime, baseball is lagging behind in terms of viewership and revenue. This is due to the complicated set of rules, hours of matches, an endless season and a lack of superstars from many countries - factors that make a successful sport.

188 pages of rules

Historically, baseball is a simple batball game that many cultures around the world have played in one form or another for centuries: one throws, one hits, the other tries to run to score points. Brennball or cricket send their regards.

But in its current version, baseball is anything but easy. The official rulebook of the Major League Baseball (MLB) Association in the USA is 188 pages long and reads about as exciting as the repair manual of a portable radio. Hardly any spectator understands at first glance who's it is when and which ingenious moves each team carries out in order to fill the bases with players and score points at some point in the nine innings.

To make matters worse: Each team plays 162 games in the six-month season up to the final round, which is incorrectly declared as a "World Series", although only teams from North America participate. Even the final is not a single match, but a "Best of Seven" series of games, which consists of at least four games. Maintaining this quota, which means one game a day for practically months, requires a lot of patience, even from the most die-hard fans.

The National Basketball Association (NBA), on the other hand, manages with just 68 pages of rules (for comparison: Fifa's official rulebook has 262 pages). The game with the two baskets suspended at a height of 3.05 meters was invented in 1891 by the Canadian-American sports teacher James Naismith and made its worldwide debut at the Olympic Games in Berlin in 1936.

The game is self-explanatory: two teams fight a battle - like in soccer or ice hockey. They try to get the ball into enemy territory with rapid attacks in order to throw baskets. The rest are subtleties that you don't necessarily need to know.

Even the most loyal baseball fans admit the massive pressure drop compared to basketball. Sports journalist Stephanie Apstein recently wrote in Sports Illustrated magazine: “Baseball is boring, that's why it's so great. It's best enjoyed as a background noise for some other activity. It's the perfect sport for chatting with a friend, reading a book or thinking about it on Sunday afternoons. ”A die-hard baseball fan of the author's circle of friends puts it this way:“ If you didn't grow up with baseball, you will don't have fun with it. "

Pace, pace

The normal basketball game has 48 minutes of playing time, with many interruptions it can usually be one and a half to a maximum of two hours. And done. Football fans are used to that too.

In baseball, on the other hand, you have to prepare for at least two to three hours. The longest game of all time in 1981 lasted eight and a half hours and was played over two days. Fans often turn the encounters into a half-day folk festival and organize “Tailgate” parties, including a barbecue that they have brought with them, around the loading area of ​​their pick-ups.

Quite different in basketball: simple rules on a manageable battlefield plus fast-paced attacks and counter-attacks sell well. The NBA recognized this early on and targeted one of the largest markets in the world: China. In contrast to other Western things, the sport was also popular during the Cultural Revolution between 1966 and 1976, and so the American umbrella organization invested specifically in the development of the People's Republic for decades.

Export to China

The breakthrough came in 2002 when the Houston Rockets hired Chinese player Yao Ming away from the Shanghai Sharks. The 2.29 meter tall athlete played for the Texans until 2011, making them the most popular basketball team in China. The American association has tightly organized on-site marketing: it set up a China division, including its own office in Beijing. To inspire the youth, the association installed around 800,000 baskets in Chinese villages and sent well-known players on nationwide tours. For commercials that ran on the state television broadcaster CCTV, the association chose a martial approach: It disguised the teams as opposing armies in armor and had them deployed with weapons.

The plan worked. Today, an estimated 300 million people play basketball in China, around a tenth of NBA sales are made there, and the target is 20 percent by 2030.

The NBA has licensed its games and additional program content in 50 languages ​​worldwide. Almost a third of their streaming subscription customers are in Asia. Since 2015, the Chinese internet giant Tencent has paid a total of $ 2 billion for the digital rights to basketball games watched by half a billion Chinese. No wonder Joe Tsai, co-founder of the Chinese internet company Alibaba, acquired the Brooklyn Nets for $ 2.35 billion last year.

Next, the NBA has its sights set on the emerging market of India. In 2011 she opened her first office in Mumbai and signed an exclusive contract with the local sports broadcaster Sony Six the following year. Well-known US players are sent on advertising trips together with Indian pop stars. "Thanks to social media, where especially many young people spend their time, we can infiltrate these markets quickly," says NBA boss Adam Silver.

Those who are so ambitious are quick to offend. When the manager of the Houston Rockets posted a single tweet in October 2019 to show solidarity with the protest movement in Hong Kong, a storm of indignation broke out in China - even though Twitter is blocked there. The simple words "Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong" caused the Chinese Basketball Association to suspend its collaboration with the Rockets. The state television CCTV stated that it will not broadcast any more games of the team for the time being. Tencent Sports also canceled its streaming plans, but then showed two games. It is not yet possible to predict what long-term damage has been caused to the NBA. The American Basketball Association has not officially apologized.

Stable finances

Basketball is a money printing machine: The 30 teams in the NBA professional league (29 of them in the USA, only one in Canada) generated sales of around 8.8 billion dollars in the 2018/19 season, with an average of 293 million dollars per team. The top teams, however, earn significantly more: The New York Knicks came to $ 472 million, followed by the Golden State Warriors and the LA Lakers in San Francisco (for comparison: FC Bayern Munich had a turnover of 750.4 million euros in the same period ).

The championship games of the college league NCAA alone - one level below the NBA - in March (also called March Madness, but canceled this year due to Corona) bring the association and clubs in a good 900 million dollars for TV advertising.

Each of the 30 teams in the MLB professional baseball league, on the other hand, had an average of $ 330 million in sales. However, the teams have to compete almost twice as often as teams in the professional basketball league - a total of 2,430 times per season. Therefore, the association's total sales are slightly higher at $ 9.9 billion.

Concentrated star power

Basketball has one thing ahead of baseball: superstars whose faces the whole world knows. These include Dirk Nowitzki from Würzburg, who played for the Dallas Mavericks; Yao Ming for the Houston Rockets; Michael "Air" Jordan for the Chicago Bulls; Kobe Bryant, who died in an accident that year for the LA Lakers; Stephen Curry of the Warriors and Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets.

More and more basketball players come from abroad and therefore have fans all over the world. In the 2019/2020 season, there were a total of 108 non-American players from 38 countries.

The top basketball players in the US are among the top earners in sport worldwide. LeBron James leads the way with $ 37 million in salary and $ 55 million in sponsorship revenue, followed by Stephen Curry (totaling $ 85.2 million) and Kevin Durant (totaling $ 73.2 million).

In contrast, the best baseball players are mostly unknown outside of the United States. This even applies to the players of big teams like the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Dodgers or the San Francisco Giants. Their sponsorship contracts are correspondingly small.

Top Earlier Mike Trout - Heard Of Him? - Although the LA Angels brings it to an annual salary of $ 36 million, he only earns an additional three million from sponsorship. Baseball has so far failed to open up a market beyond North America, Japan and South Korea as well as some Caribbean countries such as the Dominican Republic and Venezuela - which not only limits the public interest, but also the talent pool to recruit good players.

Accordingly, the global championship called WBC (World Baseball Classic), which has been held since 2006, remains poorly staffed and largely ignored. In order to keep the spectators in line, the semi-finals and finals consist of only one game each, as in football (otherwise the motto “Best of Seven” applies), so that even mediocre teams can slip through.

Even in the USA, the country of origin, interest in baseball is falling. Fewer people come to the games, the audience rating for the World Series Championship has fallen continuously since 2016, most recently to almost 14 million TV viewers. On the other hand, the TV broadcast of the NFL Superbowl, the football final, was watched by almost 100 million people in the USA alone this year - plus 50 to 65 million people in around 130 other countries. According to the umbrella organization Fifa, a total of 3.6 billion people watched the 2018 World Cup, while the final between France and Croatia saw 1.1 billion viewers.

Fan article subculture

When it comes to merchandising, too, basketball is worlds ahead of the bat. If you get yourself a pair of shoes, a jersey and a ball, you can get started in one of the many places around the corner, while baseball requires larger and more expensive equipment with bat, glove and more - not to mention a marked field that seldom found outside of America.

The global sales of the sports shoes worn by the basketball stars are correspondingly high. The 'sneakerheads' subculture has emerged from the obsession with collecting since the 1980s - spurred on by 'Air Jordan' shoes, which first came onto the market in 1985. In 2016, Warriors player Stephen Curry's kicks generated $ 160 million in sales, and LeBron James' another 150 million.

In 2015, the NBA switched the licensee for its “official” shoes from Adidas to Nike. The Oregon company paid a billion dollars to the governing body for this and also has sponsorship agreements with numerous players. According to industry estimates, Nike controls around 90 percent of the American market for basketball shoes. Experts estimate the global market for basketball accessories at $ 13.2 billion, compared to just $ 8.1 billion for baseball products.

Creative in a crisis

Since the basketball season is canceled this year due to the corona pandemic, the 16 NBA teams met in a video game for the first time in early April - in a virtual match called the NBA 2K Players Tournament (see also the story Ready? Fight! Page 62 in the booklet). Each team sent a top player like Kevin Durant onto the field, who controlled his figure from home. Fans watched on TV and online. The $ 100,000 prize money was donated to aid coronavirus. ---