At Large: The NBA in China vs Super League in Canada… alternate approaches to global goals

SportsPro editor-at-large Eoin Connolly explores the contrasting globalisation efforts of basketball and rugby league.

At Large: The NBA in China vs Super League in Canada… alternate approaches to global goals

In the first weekend of October, two visions of international sporting expansion were glimpsed at opposite ends of the Earth.

In Shanghai and Shenzhen, the global juggernaut that is the National Basketball Association (NBA) continued its conquest of an entirely willing Chinese public. Two of its most exciting teams – the Philadelphia 76ers and the Dallas Mavericks – arrived to finish up their pre-season preparations in the 25th and 26th games it has played in the country since 2004.

The 2018 NBA China Games were trailed by the usual convoy of media and fan-focused events, and were attended by a coterie of the sport’s most powerful executives. Commissioner Adam Silver and his deputy, the league’s chief operating officer Mark Tatum, made their own journeys via the inaugural FIBA World Basketball Summit in the ancient Silk Road source of Xi’an, where they detailed the NBA’s connective efforts within a network of national and international federations. Those partnerships, of course, complement regular season games in London and Mexico City and activities on the ground in Europe, Africa, and anywhere else that will have them.    

Basketball, probably the world’s second sport after you know what, is the most popular sport in China, the world’s second richest nation after you know where. Next year, the country will host the FIBA Basketball World Cup. With its colossal population and pioneering digital media, led by the likes of NBA partner Tencent, China is the ideal stage for basketball to become one of the great cultural phenomena of the 21st century.

China played host to the Dallas Mavericks and Philadelphia 76ers in the 2018 pre-season

The top brass at the global governing body have a quixotic dream that basketball can one day replace soccer as the people’s game everywhere. That may well be an ambition too far, but between FIBA and the NBA there is a concerted push to work the sport into every corner of the planet, either through lifestyle and content or the shrunken 3x3 format that it is hoped will accelerate the progress of less advanced basketball nations. They’re building something, and all the pieces matter.

Meanwhile, back in North America, another sport was exploring a new frontier in a somewhat different manner. Lamport Stadium was the venue on Sunday 7th October as the Toronto Wolfpack hosted the London Broncos in rugby league’s Million Pound Game, with the visitors winning a nervy contest 4-2 and earning the right to return to the top-tier Super League. That’s the Toronto in Ontario, Canada, and the London in the UK.

The Wolfpack are one of the more intriguing stories in international sport right now. They were created with the express aim of taking a Super League berth, with their backers choosing to fight through the English professional pyramid after an application for a direct route in was rejected. With heavy backing – both financially and, through Canada Rugby League, politically – they have made rapid progress since 2016 and were actually favourites to make the leap this year.

Their promotion, when it does come, will create the first transatlantic sports league but Super League already has an international dimension. Perpignan’s Catalans Dragons are a fixture in England’s top flight, and won the historic Challenge Cup knockout trophy for the first time this year. Another French side, Toulouse, play alongside the Wolfpack in the second tier. Intriguingly, the sports club at Red Star Belgrade – whose storied soccer team returned to the Uefa Champions League this season – have backed a rugby league outfit to enter the Challenge Cup next season.

The top brass at FIBA have a quixotic dream that basketball can one day replace soccer as the people’s game everywhere

As exciting as all of this sounds, the reality is that English rugby league is a beacon for overseas teams because the prospect of significant domestic competitions emerging in their own countries is remote. Despite holding its first Rugby League World Cup as far back as 1954, the 13-man code has struggled to establish itself as a truly global sport.

The Broncos, funnily enough, are a relic of English rugby league’s last big expansionist push: to the south of England in the mid-1990s, when the ritzy new Super League sought a strong foothold in the capital and vaulted the club up from lower-tier obscurity. The 1996 launch of the competition heralded another great innovation: a switch to the summer. Hard, fast pitches would show off the skill and athleticism of professional league stars and throw the mud-caked, attritional play of union into sharp relief.

It was a nice idea, but the 1995 decision by rugby union’s leaders to leave amateurism behind had already changed the dynamics between the two codes. League lost its commercial edge and its biggest incentive for drawing top talent. The result, as the 15-a-side and sevens games have swept through a bold globalisation plan under World Rugby, is that league’s fanbase remains scattered.

In Australia, the National Rugby League (NRL) is a powerhouse; its State of Origin set-piece a major occasion in the domestic calendar. But that is one territory. Elsewhere, league retains its smattering of traditional strongholds – like the north-west of England, which provided both finalists for this year’s Super League – and the pockets where it has survived the vicissitudes of history – like in France where, as The Independent’s Jonathan Liew wrote after Catalans’ triumph this year, its status as a mainstream pursuit was an unlikely casualty of the Vichy government in the 1940s.

The presence of Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse in the Super League Championship demonstrate rugby league's commitment to global growth

In an age where the biggest sports properties roll from market to market like social media giants, borne along on a critical mass of support, the likes of rugby league can seem caught in the GeoCities age: relying on limited infrastructure to cater to committed but niche audiences in disparate lands.

There are plenty of sports in that position and the only answer, really, is to capitalise on those breaks that do materialise. England’s Rugby Football League (RFL) has understood the nature of its unusual opportunity with the Wolfpack, authorising blocks of home and away games to make playing on two continents more manageable. Kick-off in the Million Pound Game was timed at 7pm GMT, the better to reach viewers across Canada, the UK and France.

Meanwhile, the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) plans to make the most of its next global event. The Rugby League World Cup will return to England for the second time in eight years in 2021, when the 16-team men’s tournament is to be one part of a bold showcase for the sport alongside the women’s and wheelchair competitions, all of which will culminate in a single finals weekend.

The day may never come when tens of thousands of fans pack Chinese venues to watch Wigan play Warrington, or when rugby league’s digital rights are key to the success of a tech giant. But the world is a big place, and there is more than one way through it.