Some call it soccer … how local culture influences global sports

Baseball is America’s pastime and to many, football breeds an unyielding passion that only can rival a religious cult. In general, Americans are massive sport consumers. However, Americans represent a fraction of the passionate sport consumers that span the globe. From Indonesia to Antarctica, fans and participants are immersed in the sport that best represents their interests and to an extent, their culture.

America’s sport interests are relatively eclectic, however, media ratings demonstrate the popularity of college football and basketball (especially March Madness), the big four professional sport leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL), and PGA golf. In the United Kingdom (and most other countries throughout the world) media ratings soar for Premier Soccer and Association futbol games while America’s professional leagues strategize every way possible to garner their share of attention from foreign fans.

Consider that the Tom Brady comeback of the century in Super Bowl 51 was broadcast in multiple languages and seen in several hundred countries around the world. FIFA’s World Cup is broadcast in the same languages and seen in the same two-hundred plus countries around the world, but global ratings for the World Cup far, far, far surpass the ratings for the Super Bowl. Association futbol (or “soccer” to Americans) is truly a global sport, since it is understood and practiced on all continents. Swimming is yet another example of a truly “global” sport. The NFL would like for its sport, or, at least its brand identity, to be considered a global entity, which is why the league designs strategies and invests insurmountable resources to expand its market reach. The MLB, NBA, and NHL mimic intentions to cultivate global interest in efforts to influence consumer purchase behaviors (i.e., licensed products and advertising rights).

As professional sport leagues aspire to be identified as a global brand, access and exposure are primary tools to reach new consumer markets. Common strategies to penetrate a market and grow a fanbase include opening satellite offices in international cities, recruiting foreign-born talent, broadcasting games in native languages, and organizing grass roots programs to grow the sport in especially underdeveloped countries. Intentional efforts by the NBA are the only reasons why LeBron, Kobe and even Michael Jordan are recognized in some of the most remote regions of the world.

Many countries play basketball. Many do not. In regions of the world, local culture has a profound influence in determining participation patterns of a particular sport. In the land of rice fields throughout Southeast Asia, Sepak Takraw (or Raga), Muay Thai, Krabi Krabong, and long-tail boat regattas are more popular than basketball, baseball, or volleyball. These unfamiliar sports in America are deeply rooted in tradition and rituals characteristic of the people of Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam. These sports also exemplify the concept of glocalization, or hybrid adaptations of a sport influenced by a fusion of local and global features.

Long-tail boat regattas are an example of a glocal sport adapted from drag racing. The boat consists of a lightweight canoe hull, equipped with an inboard engine and a long drive shaft pole for steering. Since there are an abundance of wide rivers and few straight roads in many parts of Southeast Asia, long tail boat races have become the region’s adaptation of motorsports.

Sepak Takraw is a glocal sport fusing volleyball and soccer where three persons per side volley a rattan ball with their feet, knees, head, or chest. Originating as a Chinese military exercise, the Siam Sports Association formalized rules of the game more than 200 years ago. Sepak Takraw is part of the Asian Games and over 20 countries list a national federation for the sport which was once played using a combination of humans and monkeys. Adaptations of the sport are played on the beaches of Brazil and around the world.

Muay Thai represents the cultural martial arts of Thailand where eight limbs (hands, elbows, knees, and feet) symbolize or mimics eight weapons of war. Krabi krabong, an adaptation of Muay Thai using swords and shields, still is used to train Thailand’s royal army. Muay Thai, however, was originally popularized by the Siamese Army under the constant threat of war. The sport, laden in rituals and tradition, is an extension of hand to hand combat used primarily in jungle warfare when weapons were not available. Youth are indoctrinated to the sport at a very young age and traditional training includes climbing coconut trees and driving coconuts into the ground using the eight contact points to improve strength and accuracy. Tournaments begin with Ram Muay, a traditional dance honoring the teacher. Some suggest that Muay Thai is an adaptation of jungle or ancient Greek warfare and that the sport influenced other adaptations such as America’s mixed martial arts (MMA).

Glocalization explains why polo players in England ride horses while the sport uses camels in Dubai, elephants in Thailand, and lama in Peru. Glocalization also explains the popularity Buzkashi, a form of polo played in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and similar regions where men on horses compete to carry the carcass of a goat or cattle to a goal area.

There are certain sports that will never be popular in America and the same can be said for sports that would not be suited for other countries. Sport, in itself, however, is a global phenomenon described by Nelson Mandela as more powerful than government in its ability to “unite people in a way that little else does.” Sport is indeed a tool for cultural diplomacy able to transcend racial, language, or socioeconomic barriers. If one nation’s cup of tea is American style football and yet another country will likely never recognize the NFL logo, at least the concept of sport for the pursuit of fitness, friendship, or fandom has apparent global significance which makes scholars and practitioners appreciate the international flavor of games and competitions played by professionals and amateurs around the world.

Stay tuned next month for more interesting sport stories from around the globe to right here in Tiffin, Ohio.

Bonnie Tiell is a professor of sports management at Tiffin University.