This past week saw a major first in the world of college athletics, international business, and global recruiting as a pair of programs pushed into uncharted territories. The match-up between Texas and Washington’s men’s basketball teams Friday in Shanghai was the first competition between two American teams in China, collegiate or otherwise. While this particular game has been in the works for years (Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott started scouting China for his teams in 2009), other universities are undoubtedly hoping to accomplish something similar in coming seasons. In fact, Scott has said his conference will tip-off its basketball season in China for the coming years and has formed a sponsorship with international e-commerce giant Alibaba to help finance the project.
The attractiveness of such a proposal for a university is multi-faceted. One primary benefit comes in the form of additional licensing and sales of school merchandise. In an interesting read that might illuminate a practice unknown to many, Brian Davis outlines UCLA’s presence overseas, which has extended well beyond selling jerseys and hats. Stores bearing the name “UCLA” and hocking a southern California style akin to J.Crew here stateside have popped up throughout China and number in the dozens. Many schools would be content to simply sell their branded sports apparel to a new market, much less create a niche clothing line, and surely pushing into China is partially motivated by this desire to sell their school logo.
Also beneficial are the opportunities to recruit international students. According to ESPN, nearly 20% of applicants to the University of Washington are from China, and enrollment of Chinese students in American schools has increased 75% in the past five years. These are significant numbers to public universities, where international students pay nearly twice the tuition of in-state enrollees. The Pac-12 certainly is aware of this substantial opportunity as seen by the Pac-12 college fair that the conference hosted in China immediately after the recent basketball game.
Naturally, in a discussion of the benefits of such an undertaking like international travel and competition, the question of costs arises. While the bills for Texas’ most recent trip haven’t been disclosed, because of the sponsorship by Alibaba, the schools won’t have to pay what is probably an exorbitant price of this opportunity. This funding is critical for such endeavors to continue in the future. Making an argument for a retinue of student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and staff members to travel across the world on a public university’s dime for a single basketball game, regardless of jersey sales or potential applicant pools, would be a tough sell (to wit, flying across South Carolina even raises some eyebrows). Partnering with ambitious companies looking to make an impact on a U.S. market is a logical solution, even if those companies aren’t as substantial as Alibaba, whose sales rival that of online retailer and American mainstream option, Amazon.
The Pac-12 is setting a precedent that schools will look to replicate in the future. The benefits of going overseas are numerous and attractive. From cultural exposure for young people to selling more jerseys to building a more international student body, athletic departments looking to creatively expand must now consider looking abroad as a realistic option.