Sports

Jacobs: Next step in expansion: ACC Global

ACC commissioner John Swofford expects to announce league athletic events overseas in “the reasonably near future” - a football game in Europe to start a season is a likely candidate for early action. Above, Duke guard Laken Tomlinson (77) photo bombs a group shot as the Blue Devil football team poses with heavy equipment prior to a groundbreaking ceremony after Duke beat Wake Forest 41-21 at Wallace Wade Stadium, Nov. 29, 2014 in Durham.
ACC commissioner John Swofford expects to announce league athletic events overseas in “the reasonably near future” - a football game in Europe to start a season is a likely candidate for early action. Above, Duke guard Laken Tomlinson (77) photo bombs a group shot as the Blue Devil football team poses with heavy equipment prior to a groundbreaking ceremony after Duke beat Wake Forest 41-21 at Wallace Wade Stadium, Nov. 29, 2014 in Durham. cliddy@newsobserver.com

If you thought expansion by college conferences was finished, at least for a while, think again. Of course you were also probably thinking that leagues expand by adding schools or maybe, if you follow the jargon, by spawning new media platforms. But it’s really all about markets.

From college to the pros, leagues increasingly are looking beyond the borders of the United States to extend their reach and corral more attention and customers.

American pro leagues have outposts in Canada. Since 2007 the NFL has played games annually in London. The NBA has scheduled an exhibition contest in Africa on Aug. 1 with teams led by Duke product Luol Deng and Wake Forest’s Chris Paul. There’s serious talk Major League Baseball might soon place a franchise in Mexico City.

At the college level the Pac-12 launched a “Globalization Initiative” in 2011 to extend its presence into Asia. Last summer a Pac-12 all-star men’s basketball team visited China. This past season “Pac-12 Global” live-streamed 27 men’s basketball games in the world’s most populous nation. Come November, the University of Washington will face a nonconference foe, the University of Texas, in regular-season action in Shanghai as part of the West Coast league’s overseas market penetration.

Now here comes the ACC, stepping into the picture just as a largely unexploited new market beckons literally at its feet.

At next month’s ACC spring meetings, commissioner John Swofford says the conference will continue conversations among its “very interested” university presidents and athletic directors about “ACC Global,” a vehicle for “marketing and branding our institutions through some athletic competition.” Swofford expects to announce league athletic events overseas in “the reasonably near future” – a football game in Europe to start a season is a likely candidate for early action.

Crossing the Atlantic

Meanwhile, even as the ACC tiptoes toward crossing the ocean whose name it bears, American foreign policy has changed dramatically in regard to Cuba, a Pennsylvania-sized island nation of 11 million people just 90 miles south of Key West, Fla.

In 1960, a year after Fidel Castro and a band of guerillas overthrew dictator Juan Batista and seized control both of the country and American properties, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo on Cuba’s communist government. That commercial blanket remained in place until earlier this year, when President Obama began taking steps to normalize relations between the two countries, marked by a lessening of travel and trade restrictions.

Cuba was never totally isolated, receiving visitors from around the world and participating in the Olympics, the World Baseball Classic, and other international athletic competition. Track and field, basketball, boxing, and volleyball are popular in the country, but baseball is the sport of choice. “It’s a huge deal, and the games are broadcast on television and everybody watches,” says Luci Fernandes, an East Carolina University cultural and visual anthropologist.

Over the years the occasional American college team played in Cuba’s national capital, which once boasted an International League franchise, the Havana Sugarcanes. Back in 1999 the Baltimore Orioles and the state-supported Cuban National Team split a home-and-home baseball series. The Orioles reportedly are contemplating a preseason exhibition game next year in Cuba.

USA Baseball hasn’t waited – since 2012 the Cuban National Team has played five games each year against the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, a collection of freshmen and sophomores that included N.C. State’s Carlos Rodon. Early this July the teams will renew their series in Cary, Charlotte and Durham.

“I think it’s a great way for our countries to connect initially through sports, and through art and music and those types of things that are politically neutral, for the most part,” Fernandes offers. “I think there’s an enormous interest with players in Cuba to connect with players in the U.S.” Last season 19 Cuban-born players connected by appearing in the major leagues. Five were All-Stars – Cincinnati’s Aroldis Chapman, the L.A. Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig, Detroit outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, and the White Sox’s Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez.

The NBA also leapt to make its presence felt in Cuba, hosting a clinic in Havana this past weekend. But to judge by the comments of Paul Seiler, executive director of USA Baseball, any sport faces an uphill battle winning the allegiance of Cubans compared with baseball. “The sport of baseball, let alone the Cuban National Team, it seems as though everyone in Cuba knows everything about baseball,” Seiler says. “It really is incredible, the passion, the knowledge, the respect that they have for the sport.”

Baseball acts as bridge

How the ACC can fit into the still-murky Cuban picture has yet to be discussed in depth, although Swofford says the topic will be raised as the league fleshes out its international plans.

Presumably if the Pac-12 can make inroads in a communist nation across the Pacific Ocean, the ACC can find a way to project a presence in neighboring Cuba, where a strong U.S. influence is vividly demonstrated by the classic American cars that dot its streets. When and if foreign capitalism makes inroads in the country’s tightly regulated economy, just think of all the ACC games to be broadcast, the school paraphernalia to be sold, the booster junkets to be taken.

ECU’s Fernandes, an annual visitor to Cuba for the past 15 years, expects a continued slow transition toward openness similar to the process in China.

Others, especially in South Florida, see no meaningful change now or on the horizon, and insist upon reparations for property and lives taken a half-century ago. “The whole game is unilateral concessions by the U.S.,” insists Jaime Suchlicki, a history professor and director of the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. A 1960 refugee from Cuba, he considers the country on a par with Iran, Russia and Venezuela as an enemy of the U.S. Fernandes and Louis A. Pérez, Jr., a UNC history professor with a Caribbean focus, discount such talk as a faded vestige of Cold War attitudes. Perez in fact proposes an exhibition appearance in Cuba by the Tar Heel basketball team. But the sport most likely to provide an early bridge is baseball, a connection sure to benefit the University of Miami and by extension the ACC.

The Miami area, with a majority Hispanic population including more than one million Cuban-Americans, is regarded as a gateway to Latin America. Interest there in any kind of sports connection with Cuba would be strong.

“There’s no easier place for a kid to come from Cuba or South America or Central America or the (Caribbean) islands than Miami,” says Hurricanes baseball coach Jim Morris, known for dipping into the rich pool of Latin talent.

Morris already has contemplated the major eligibility and adjustment issues Cuban youngsters would face if recruited to play for U.S. colleges. Asked how the ACC can tap into Cuba’s passion for baseball, he speaks immediately of teaching prospects to speak English so they can take the SATs. He sees Cuban teens attending junior college first to get settled, then moving to four-year schools. “The process may take a few years for them to get academically acclimated to the system,” Morris says. Then again, no one promised this next phase of expansion would be easy.

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