After the NFL American football league last year led the way in returning to international shores, its major league rivals are preparing the ground to follow suit over the coming months.
Major League Baseball, the NBA basketball league and the NHL ice hockey competition have all detailed plans this year to stage games outside the US and Canada as they seek to reengage with an international fanbase that has been starved of live action due to COVID-19.
Crucially, all of these events – as in previous years – will include extensive on-site activations for ticket-holders, as well as fans and families who just want to soak up the experience. Indeed, in-person offerings are set to be as important as ever, as the leagues spread their wings globally once again.
The NFL last year staged its second and third games at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, returning to international play for the first time since 2019.
The Atlanta Falcons and Jacksonville Jaguars picked up wins in the London Games, with the NFL Welcome Zone in place on the High Road outside the stadium offering a dedicated area for fans with the likes of photo opportunities, team areas, activities and games, and cheerleader performances.
Ahead of the games, the NFL also delivered a series of activations open to the public in the Spurs Shop at the Tottenham Experience and international play is expanding for the 2022 season.
The NFL is returning to London for two more games at Tottenham on October 2 and 9, while also heading back to Wembley Stadium on October 30. The NFL will return to Mexico City for the first time since 2019 on November 21 with Estadio Azteca hosting a matchup between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals.
However, the NFL’s headline international move will be the League’s regular season debut in Germany. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the Seattle Seahawks on November 13 at Allianz Arena, home of Bayern Munich. Frankfurt and Munich were in February chosen to stage regular-season games in Germany over the next four years.
The NFL also made a notable attempt to engage with another significant fanbase in June, as Ghana held the League’s first official events in Africa. The week of activities – NFL Africa: The Touchdown – included a talent identification camp, a fan event and a flag football clinic.
Fan engagement is one of the key elements of the International Home Marketing Areas (IHMA) venture, which launched in January. Granting NFL clubs access to specific international territories for marketing and commercialisation, the IHMA recently expanded to 19 teams granted access to 30 areas across 10 different countries. The Philadelphia Eagles became the first NFL club to enter a market in Africa by being granted access to Ghana.
Paris was the destination for the NBA’s last overseas game, as the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Charlotte Hornets in a regular-season encounter in January 2020, and the French capital is again part of the plans for the league’s resumption of international play.
In May, the league announced that NBA Paris Game 2023 will feature the Chicago Bulls and the Detroit Pistons playing a regular-season game at the Accor Arena on January 19. In addition to the game itself, the league and its partners will conduct interactive fan activities, NBA Cares community outreach initiatives and Jr. NBA youth basketball development programming.
International pre-season play is also returning to the schedules, including the NBA’s first move into a new marketplace. In May, the league agreed a deal with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi for the Atlanta Hawks and Bucks to play two pre-season games at Etihad Arena on Yas Island. Taking place on October 6 and 8, NBA Abu Dhabi Games 2022 will mark the league’s first games in the United Arab Emirates and the Arabian Gulf.
Prior to this, the NBA will return to Japan for the first time since 2019, with commercial partner the Rakuten Group taking the Golden State Warriors and Washington Wizards to play two pre-season games. NBA Japan Games 2022 will take place on September 30 and October 2 at Saitama Super Arena and will mark the league’s 15th and 16th games in the country.
The NBA last year also sought to engage with its European fanbase through ‘The NBA Exhibition’, an NBA-themed, touring fan experience that premiered in Warsaw, Poland on October 8. Seeking to showcase the lifestyle, culture and history of the NBA, the Exhibition ran through to January 31, before touring several countries in Central and Eastern Europe.
The NHL in April announced its plans to reengage with fans in key European markets for the first time since 2019, with regular-season and exhibition games scheduled for the Czech Republic, Finland, Germany and Switzerland.
The NHL and the National Hockey League Players’ Association (NHLPA), in conjunction with Live Nation, will take the Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche and Columbus Blue Jackets across the water for the 2022 Global Series and 2022 Global Series Challenge.
The Sharks and Predators will open the 2022-23 regular season at the O2 Arena in Prague, with games on October 7 and 8. Prior to these games, the Predators and Sharks will complete their training camps in Europe and will each play in an exhibition match as part of the Global Series Challenge.
The Predators will take to Bern, Switzerland, and play an exhibition game against SC Bern at PostFinance Arena on October 3. The Sharks will travel to Berlin and play an exhibition game against Eisbären Berlin at Mercedes-Benz Arena on October 4.
The Blue Jackets and Avalanche will play in Tampere, Finland, for two regular-season games at the recently opened Nokia Arena on November 4 and 5.
Prague’s events will mark the first NHL games in Europe since the Tampa Bay Lightning and Buffalo Sabres competed in Stockholm, Sweden on November 9, 2019.
Alongside these games, the NHL is set to rekindle its Global Fan Tour concept, which first launched in 2018.
MLB’s last international action came in 2019 with a series of games held at Tokyo Dome, Estadio de Béisbol Monterrey and London Stadium. The latter venue hosted MLB games for the first time in June 2019 when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox met in the inaugural MLB London Series – an event that was supported by CSM Live.
The two games at London Stadium were the first-ever regular-season contests in Europe, and the UK capital is at the heart of MLB’s future planning. In May, a long-term strategic partnership was signed that includes MLB’s commitment to hold major events in London over the next five years, including regular-season games in 2023, 2024 and 2026.
To complement these events, MLB Europe will continue to conduct new London-based fan engagement events, expanded UK-focused content and baseball participation programs.
Indeed, a prime example of this is Home Run Derby X, a new baseball format that is making its debut in London’s Crystal Palace Park this July.
The teams competing will represent four of MLB’s most historic clubs – the Red Sox, Yankees, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers. Each team will consist of competitors from four categories – MLB Legend, Superstar, Rookie and Wild Card.
The new event concept will then head to Seoul and Mexico City on September 17 and October 15, respectively, marking the latest initiative by a major league to internationalise their offering in a highly competitive space.