Tuesday October 3, 2023

The Push to Attract International Fans to College Sports

  • South Carolina and Notre Dame will play the first-ever NCAA basketball game in Paris next season.
  • The Big 12 wants to host multiple football and basketball games in Mexico.
College sports is looking to go international.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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NBC is exploring broadcasting a slice of the expanded CFP in 2026.
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Universities have hosted college sports events outside the United States for over a century. But despite a few notable exceptions like Notre Dame, NCAA schools have failed to build long-lasting fan bases overseas.

During the 2023-24 season, however, multiple schools will try to attract international fans to NCAA sports through new events outside the U.S.

  • In April, Notre Dame announced it would host the first-ever NCAA basketball game in Paris between their women’s team and the South Carolina Gamecocks. 
  • And on Tuesday, a source confirmed to Front Office Sports that the Big 12 will begin to stage multiple sporting events in Mexico. The conference hopes to create a long-term relationship with Mexican sports fans. 

These new events will add to more common overseas tournaments, such as a men’s basketball non-conference tournament in the Bahamas and Notre Dame’s football games in Ireland. 

Historically, though, these events haven’t been able to put down real roots in other countries, as they faced cultural differences. Sports like football aren’t as popular in other countries. And most nations outside the U.S. don’t tie competitive sports to universities — very few NCAA equivalents exist. 

But college officials hope the rabid fan bases in America will help propel momentum for international fans. 

Commissioner Brett Yormark “has seen the success the NBA, NFL, and professional leagues have had building their brands in Mexico and plans to replicate that,” a Big 12 conference source told FOS. “Mexico is a natural extension for the Big 12.”

While basketball is already popular in Europe, the region has little exposure to women’s college hoops. But Notre Dame coach Niele Ivey hopes that international fans will love the sport just as much as U.S. fans, who have grown exponentially in recent years. “It gives [fans] a tangible product to see in person,” she told FOS at the ESPNW Summit on Thursday. “It’s going to galvanize the game.”

There’s another factor working in their favor: International players fuel overseas interest in the NCAA. 

Currently, more than 20,000 NCAA athletes hail from different countries. Between 2016-2020, the number of D-I athletes rose from 2,889 to 3,639 — or about 13.2% of all D-I athletes, according to NCAA data. That number only dropped in 2021 due to the pandemic.

Playing overseas could entice more athletes to play in the NCAA, feeding the increasing international fan base. “They can see these teams up close and personal,” Ivey said. “Hopefully, that gives me a better opportunity to recruit.”

In addition to the experience of going abroad, athletes themselves can benefit. Due to visa regulations, most international athletes can’t participate in name, image, and likeness. But there is a loophole where they can earn income when they’re not on U.S. soil — so international games and tournaments can become a valuable events until those rules change.

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