Rash Report: Sports stars, media and marketing go global

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 24, 2011 - 10:53 PM

Rory McIlroy, Ricky Rubio and other international male athletes are emblematic of the shift.

Photo: Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

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Given the globalization of sports and media, if there were a radio reprise of "Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy," Jack might become Jacques and "All-American" might become "All-World." But just like the original, a likely presenting sponsor would be Wheaties.

The first athlete on the 3MDRiZDEw&hl=en_US">iconic orange box may have been baseball's Lou Gehrig -- "The Iron Horse" -- but the most recent was Ironman triathlete Chris McCormack, an Australian.

"Everybody who is selected to be on the box has to exhibit championship qualities both on and off the field of play, because we know that kids are looking at that box to see heroes and role models," said Shelly Dvorak, public-relations manager for Wheaties.

Based on those criteria, expect to see more foreign-born athletes at breakfast. With the exception of American football, sports stars and their fan bases have gone global.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than during last weekend's U.S. Open. Beating the global group of golfers that make up the Professional Golf Association, Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy melted records, and sports cynicism, with his 16-under-par performance.

It wasn't just how well, but how he played, that had fans chanting his name. Just 22, the mop-haired golfer seemed simultaneously steely and sweet, and accessible in a way fewer American athletes are.

"He has a tremendous back story," said Eric Bechtel, president of International Sports Management USA, which represents McIlroy.

"He was a prodigy as a kid, and has been passionate about his destiny from as young as 3 years old. He has a tremendous family with amazing values, and if you met his dad, in 15 minutes you'd understand why Rory is so grounded."

Of course, nearly the exact same quote could have described Tiger Woods when he burst onto the sports and endorsement scene. But when a seamier scene exposed Tiger as more tomcat, golf and sports were left with a void.

It's too early to tell if McIlroy is the next Tiger -- in both senses of the word. But perhaps the only grins bigger than those of McIlroy and his fans last weekend were worn by sponsors and PGA executives. If McIlroy continues winning, the smiles won't soon fade.

"The phones have been ringing off the hook," said Bechtel, who thinks his client's working-class background is universal. "It's a different world now, with more and more international players," he explained. "Technology and new media have given new ways to communicate. A lot of athletes are savvy with Facebook and Twitter."

New media isn't the only driving dynamic. Globalism itself plays a big part, said David Abrutyn, senior vice president and managing director at IMG, considered the global leader in representing athletes.

"With the globalization of sport, you've seen development of a pool of athletes achieve success in a media environment where the world is truly flat. To an enlightened corporate brand, being foreign in today's marketing world probably isn't an inhibitor as it might have been 10 to 15 years ago."

And yet it seems slow to change. Sports like soccer and tennis have always had an international accent. But for most major U.S. sports, endorsements are still mostly an all-American game, despite leagues being more international.

Forbes 2011 "Celebrity 100" rankings lists Tiger Woods as still the top jock, at six. Sports Illustrated ranked him first in 2010 athlete compensation, which includes endorsements, many of which contractually lasted well past the Thanksgiving Day 2009 car crash that set off a chain reaction of scandal.

The next highest-ranking sports star is the National Basketball Association's LeBron James, who last summer cavalierly told Cleveland fans he was "taking my talents to South Beach" to play for the Miami Heat. This decision, deemed "The Decision" in a grotesque spectacle on ESPN, made James 2011's player people love to hate.

To the delight of many, James failed to win the NBA Championship this year. Instead, the Dallas Mavericks did, led by NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who is German. He's just one of a record 84 international players from 38 countries who played on 28 of the 30 NBA teams last year.

Joining them, and the Minnesota Timberwolves next fall, will be Congo's Tanguy Ngombo, as well as Spain's Ricky Rubio, who signed this week. It's too early to tell whether Rubio can play defense. But the charm offensive he's displayed has positioned him like McIlroy -- excellent, but accessible.

Basketball isn't the only game gone global. The American pastime is international, too. Opening-day rosters had openings for 234 players from 14 foreign countries, representing 28 percent of all players.

Latin Americans still dominate (Dominicans make up 86 of this total) but there are also 16 Canadians, including Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, and 10 from Japan, including Twins shortstop Tsuyoshi Nishioka. When they're joined by third baseman Luke Hughes, an Australian, and second baseman Alexi Casilla, who's Dominican, the Twins have an international infield.

Hockey's top two endorsers are Pittsburgh Penguin Sidney Crosby (Canadian) and the Washington Capital's Alex Ovechkin (Russian). Maybe it's because only 24 percent of National Hockey League players were born in this nation.

But the others aren't just from Montreal and Moscow: Among the projected top draft picks at the NHL draft held this weekend at St. Paul's Xcel Energy Center is Mika Zibanejad, a Swede of Finnish-Iranian background known as the "Persian Prince."

None of this is lost on sport's most influential force: ESPN. According to Carol Kruse, the network's senior vice president for marketing, the meritocracy of sports itself is a great leveler.

"Our sense is that when it comes to sports, even more than many areas, what fans want to see is great sport. I don't think that [being foreign-born] plays into it."

Kruse's colleagues have selected several foreign-born jocks for ESPN's jocular "This is SportsCenter" campaign -- a postmodern version of appearing on a Wheaties Box -- "because they are iconic in their sports, or represent the team, or individual success, or have a great personality, not based on where they were born," she said.

For IMG's Abrutyn, it's not a Wheaties box, or SportsCenter spot, that would be the big breakthrough. Instead, it would be an international athlete winning an MVP award, like at the end of the Super Bowl, and shouting "I'm going to Disney World!"

That would prove that indeed, it's a small world, after all.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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