On August 6th, 2014, then-Bayern Munich manager Pep Guardiola walked off the pitch after a 2-1 preseason friendly loss to the MLS All Stars and wagged his finger at the opposing manager instead of giving the usual handshake.
His disapproval was predictable. While the German side viewed the match as a pre-season warm-up, the North American side relished the chance to record a win against a European powerhouse. Therefore, the MLS All-Stars played a physically aggressive game. But for European managers like Guardiola, exhibition games against North American opponents are no place for forceful tackles. Injury risks should be reserved for more high-stakes fixtures.
A lack of competitiveness from European clubs is normal for foreign exhibition games, but the result leaves international competition wanting.
The exhibitionism of ‘North American’ sports
Top sports leagues in North America have been taking a different approach when sending the best teams abroad. For instance, Major League Baseball (MLB) has scheduled a pair of regular season games next year featuring the century-old rivalry between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in London’s Olympic Stadium. Hosting a rivalry competition guarantees that the teams will be just as stimulated as they would be playing on their home fields.
Baseball follows the example of other North American sports leagues. The National Football League (NFL) has scheduled an annual game in London since 2007. It has become so popular that there is speculation of a permanent move across the pond by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Basketball also travels well. Recent matchups between successful teams have occurred in London’s O2 arena (Philadelphia 76ers vs. Boston Celtics) and the Arena Ciudad de Mexico (San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns). In China, the NBA has carved out a lucrative niche by scheduling pre-season friendlies there since 2004. The league is now setting its sights on Europe and Latin America.
The National Hockey League (NHL) has perhaps the strongest presence abroad - regular season games have been played in Berlin, Stockholm, Helsinki, Prague, and Tokyo. Ice hockey has achieved perhaps the greatest global presence of any sport originating from North America and is the most popular team game in northern countries such as Russia and Finland.
New global sports
These days, giving a ‘North American’ label to these sports is a misnomer. Major league baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey increasingly draw players from countries in other regions and their impact is evident in global competitions.
Take basketball. While US dominance was complete in the era of the 1992 ‘dream team’, it was the ‘golden generation’ of Spanish players who won the gold medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. The next new force in international basketball might be Australia, the home of several up-and-coming stars including Ben Simmons, the presumptive NBA Rookie of the Year.
Meanwhile, baseball has been widely popularised in the Caribbean and in East Asia. The World Baseball Classic, a global baseball tournament started in 2006, was not won by the United States until 2017. In fact, the US even failed to make the finals until last year, getting beaten by teams from Japan, the Dominican Republic, and South Korea.
Challenging the global hegemony
The character of internationally hosted matches reveals the ambition of North American sport. Instead of showcasing warm-ups like Mr Guardiola, international fans are given competitive fixtures of the highest class. By playing regular season games abroad, the North American Leagues have not only expanded their markets but evangelised their respective sports, challenging football’s hegemony as the world’s global game.