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Opinion | Sport can provide antidote to insularity of Trump

Brexit and the election of Donald Trump suggest a world that is rejecting globalisation. But sport can provide a counterbalance and an antidote to an an increasingly inward looking planet, says Kevin Roberts.

AHEAD OF LAST MONTH'S historic victory over the all conquering New Zealand All Blacks in Chicago, the Irish Rugby Football Union concluded a ‘rugby partnership’ with the University of Notre Dame, one of the most respected names in US collegiate sport.

Under the agreement the IRFU and ‘Fighting Irish’, as Notre Dame sports teams are nicknamed, will work together across a broad spectrum of initiatives. These include the IRFU accessing Notre Dame’s renowned athlete development, conditioning, psychology and medical expertise while the University’s rugby programme will benefit from elite professional coaching programmes.

The anticipated outcome is an improvement of the standard of rugby at Notre Dame and, therefore, across the US collegiate scene, which is one of the main engines of growth for rugby – reported to be the country’s fastest growing sport. Games featuring the US national team are well attended and getting better TV coverage than ever before, while the showcase Las Vegas Sevens tournament goes from strength to strength.

But this agreement goes beyond what happens on the pitch. The IRFU is smart enough to realise that its close association with Notre Dame’s ‘Fighting Irish’ takes them closer to the 33 million Americans of Irish descent. Get them engaged with rugby, and the Irish national and provincial teams, and a significant commercial market opens. In fact, the IRFU has hired veteran sports marketer Patrick Nally – a name that denotes his own Irish heritage – to develop commercial programmes in the US.

While the Irish team was preparing for its sell-out game in Chicago, Mark McCafferty, CEO of England’s Premiership Rugby, was on stage at Rugby Expo, explaining why the US was also an important market for his league.

Earlier this year, just before St Patrick’s Day, now-relegated London Irish played champion Saracens at New York’s Red Bull Arena in the first regular-season game in the US. This was English rugby putting boots on the ground after concluding a TV deal with NBC to boost coverage of the league.

The US is, said McCafferty, the Premiership’s No.1 overseas target. He believes that building its fan base in the US will help to grow the clubs’ brands in a way that will have a knock on effect domestically, leading to more awareness, higher attendances and profiles that can be exploited commercially.

The international ambitions of sports clubs and leagues are not limited to the US and it is certainly not one-way traffic. The NBA and the NFL, with its growing roster of regular season games in London, have led the way with even Major League Baseball’s commissioner talking about the potential for franchises in Mexico and – some way down the line – Cuba.

Leading European soccer clubs have been among the pioneers of international brand building with Real Madrid claiming only a fraction of their 450 million fans live in Spain.

The globalisation of domestic sports brands has been one of the key trends in the sports business in recent years and there has been little reason to even contemplate this train coming off the tracks. So, here’s a question for you: Is sport bucking a global trend in this respect and can it continue to do so?

Britain’s rejection of the European Union, Donald Trump’s insistence on withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership on his first day in office and the rise of nationalism in France, Austria and many other countries suggest a world that is kicking out against globalisation and becoming more insular.

Some economists envisage a future that looks very different to the way the world is right now; a world of tariffs and trade wars, of inward-looking nations governed by the US/Britain/France/Russia/China-First mantra.

In that event, will there be a question mark over sport’s continued globalisation, or could the reverse be true? Sports like football and rugby and leagues such as the NBA feature a high proportion of stars from all over the world. The mantra is not country first but team first and anybody who is good enough gets a shot.

There has always been an irony in the sight of fans waving the English flag as they stridently support their Premier League club teams against European opposition, despite the often-complete absence of English players from the teams they love. But these people aren’t all stupid. They understand that producing the most competitive teams means sourcing the best parts, irrespective of origin.

Overseas fans of Real, the Lakers, Jets or Harlequins aren’t that bothered about their country of origin. It is about the excitement and the fans bonding over the team’s fortunes.

So whether it’s multi-national club teams in domestic leagues, passionate fans celebrating Barca’s latest victory on the streets of Manilla, the LA Rams playing on rugby’s hallowed turf at Twickenham or Ireland triumphing at the NFL hotbed of Soldier Field, professional club sport has the potential to be a growing counter-balance to national insularity and a reminder of what can be achieved when talent is more important than state of origin.

And the success that brings isn’t confined to the trophy cabinet; it extends to the bank account. The most successful sports businesses rely on being players in a global marketplace, and while there are significant arguments about the impact of this on domestic sport in some countries, international expansion in a world shrunk by digital media isn’t about to grind to a halt.

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