“The NBA will have franchises in Europe within 10 years.” That was David Stern at the NBA All-Star Game in Philadelphia in 2002, when talk of European expansion was the hot topic. Now of course we have leaders floating ideas like that pretty regularly (last week Ted Leonsis talked about esports overtaking the NFL, which is a great headline, especially if you don’t own an NFL team and are invested in many forms of gaming and content) in order to shake the tree and see if there are some high net worth partners that come along that maybe they were not aware of. Will the boldest of predictions come about? Anyone’s guess. Just ask all those TV execs who doubled down on 3D TV when it was originally presented as the next big thing at the US Open about 10 years ago. All those glasses are in the bottom of someone’s closet now.
The dalliance with new frontiers and projected millions of consumers continues on. Last year all the buzz was about Cuba and all the potential there. Europe sits out there with almost every sport, and let’s not forget the riches of assets that exist in the U.S. as powerful soccer clubs and the elite leagues of Europe look this way for what could be next for them as well.
And then we have Mexico. Baseball, the NFL, college football and now the NBA are finally looking just southwest and realizing that a growing middle class, world class facilities and a thirst for content are really just south of the border. Factor in 35 million Mexicans in the United States, the ever-growing audience for Liga MX, which draws larger audiences than most other soccer on TV in North America, and aggressive Mexican brands who regularly spend on the U.S. consumer, and maybe the best look for expansion, or more consistent play, is actually our closest neighbor (assuming the wall never makes it up and trade regulations stay favorable).
Mexico has a great need for broadcast content, has favorable time zones, is actively looking at gambling revenue in the near future, has a consumer that understands as uses the mobile environment better than many in the U.S., and is a destination for the American tourist, even ones looking for a little sports junket. It also has lots of obstacles to overcome, from tax issues to a still wide level of people below the poverty line, and the lifeblood of big league sports…massive corporate support for tickets and sponsorship…is also still a bit in flux. But a viable next step outside of the States? Mexico makes more sense than it ever has before. Now the NBA has talked GLeague soon, and that has even bigger issues (travel, budget, health and the fact that it is still minor league) but a test to see how a franchise could function is intriguing. The joint World Cup bid with Mexico also provides an interesting test to see how things could be run at an elite level on both sides of the Rio Grande, so talking up Mexican expansion creates even more of an allure of opportunity.
In the end, the realistic franchise transfer and growth in North America is going to be the safer bets; cities like Seattle and even Kansas City or a Canadian market like Quebec City will be well in the fold before Mexico City has permanent roots. However the NBA announcement last week makes a great deal of sense as a trial balloon, and projects a sensible area of growth speaking to a Latino market that wants to keep loving hoops and is much closer than London or Paris or Beijing. Whether a high net worth individual comes forward with a viable plan for Mexico permanence in sport comes through as a result of the toes being dipped in the water remains to be seen. There is certainly no risk to saying Mexico is important, just like Commissioner Stern’s claim in 2002 did not hurt credibility. It shakes the tree, one with billions of dollars in fruit hanging. When and if it falls out we shall see, but even without a permanent team, showing love to Mexico and its burgeoning multilingual consumer is smart business, now that far away.