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Tuesday, July 10, 2012
FOREIGN LEGIONS

By STEVE HIRDT

YAO BEATS OUT Shaq for the starting spot in the All-Star Game? Get used to it. The world grows smaller every day, my friends, and anyone who has enjoyed Sammy Sosa, Jaromir Jagr and Dirk Nowitzki already knows the impact that foreign-born players are having on North American professional sports leagues.

But as television continues to show what used to be known as "our American sports" to a global community, and as the money being offered by North American teams-combined with the allure of playing with the world's greatest-acts as a magnet for the best players from beyond our shores, the increase in foreign-born players shows no sign of abating.

Nearly one-third of all NHL players this season were born outside the United States and Canada; that rate has doubled in the last 10 years. In Major League Baseball, the numbers are much the same: just over 25% of all players were born outside the 50 states and 10 provinces, a rate that has doubled since 1989.

The growth rate of foreign-born players has been even steeper in the NBA, a league that got through the 1960s without a single dribble or inbounds pass-let alone a dunk-by a player born outside the U.S. this year, nearly 15% of NBA players were born on other continents, a rate that has more than doubled in just the past five years!

The foreign-born players who have made their way onto the rosters of North American teams are hardly riding the bench, either. Where would the Angels have been without Francisco Rodriguez, or the Kings without Vlade Divac, Peja Stojakovic and Hidayet Turkoglu? in the NHL, the foreign talent level is such that the league played its All-Star Game in a North America-against-the-rest-of-the-world format for five years, with the World squad winning two of the games.

A half century after baseball welcomed its first All-Stars from Spanish-speaking nations (Cuba's Minnie Minoso and Connie Marrero and Venezuela's Chico Arrasquel in 1951), there were 24 players named to last summer's infamous All-Star Game in Milwaukee who were born outside the 50 states; that broke the previous record of 20 set four years earlier. And nine of those 24 players were first-time All-Stars; Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Tejada, Byung-Hyun Kim and friends should be back for years to come. Now we have Yao, poised to start in the Feb. 9 NBA All-Star Game in Atlanta. Sure, Yao has had his ups and downs in his first NBA season-did anyone expect anything different? But with a young player, you look for talent indicators, and Yao has provided them. Such as on Nov. 21, when he became the first player in exactly 10 years to have a 30-point, 15-rebound game within the first 10 games of his NBA career. (Tom Gugliotta did it on Nov. 21, 1992.) Or when Yao averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds in 33 minutes per game during a stretch of 17 starts between Dec. 3 and Jan. 8.

The NFL is the only one of the four leagues not to have seen a dramatic increase in foreign-born players. It has held steady at a rate below 3% for more than 20 years (2.6% in 1980; 2.8% in 1990; 2.4% in 2002).

In fact, only 51 of the 1,841 individuals who played in the NFL this season were born outside the U.S. (including seven Canadians), and there is no strong pattern among those foreign-born players that presages such cradles as the Caribbean in baseball or europe in hockey and basketball. (Jamaica sent the most foreigners, 9, to the NFL in 2002.)

It remains to be seen whether the NFL's lack of foreign players will be a factor in the dissemination of the game over worldwide television, or whether NFL Europe will effectively spread the gospel of American football throughout that continent. But with rising costs a factor everywhere, successful overseas commercialization of what we used to chauvinistically call "our" pro sports leagues will be an important factor in the economic well-being of North American pro franchises, sooner rather than later.

It's just too bad that those foreign audiences won't be getting our announcers. I'd love to hear Tim McCarver explain the double-switch in Spanish, or to learn from Bill Walton the Mandarin word for "horrible."

ALIENATION three of the four major pro sports leagues have experienced dramatic increases in foreign participation.