Game changers: International athletes are flocking to the US" />

Game changers: International athletes are flocking to the US

American sports have never had a large portion of star foreign players, but throughout the years more and more have taken the United States by storm.
The rise in foreign sports players has lead to a tremendous boom in talent in domestic sports arena, most notably in the MLB, NFL and NBA.
The rise in foreign sports players has lead to a tremendous boom in talent in domestic sports arena, most notably in the MLB, NFL and NBA.

Professional sports organizations are always looking for players to become the face of their league. Today, athletes from all over the globe are some of the best and most popular players, but this hasn’t always been the case. 

For much of the big four’s (MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL) history, a majority, if not all of their players and stars, have been American. In the MLB, only four percent of players were born in foreign countries in 1955. In 1980, only 1.7% of NBA players and 6.3% of NHL players were foreign, and only three percent of NFL players were foreign in 2017. These sports didn’t cater to audiences outside of the United States and Canada much, and as a result the amount of foreign players was close to none. 

Soccer is commonly referred to as the most popular sport in the world, and for good reason. The 2022 FIFA World Cup amassed five billion total viewers, and one and a half billion for the championship game of Argentina vs. France. The global outreach this event and the sport itself has is second to none. Every four years, fans across the world tune in to watch their country compete for the World Cup trophy. In the US, sports like hockey, basketball, football and baseball are watched much more, but soccer surpasses all of them because of its foreign support.

People love to support players and teams who are based where they are from or grew up in, and having more diverse players tremendously helps. In 1980, Mexico native Fernando Valenzuela of the Los Angeles Dodgers made his debut with the team. Only pitching in 10 games, though, he didn’t have much of an impact on the team. 

Everything changed, however, the following year. 

Valenzuela would pitch to a 2.48 ERA in 192 innings, winning him the Cy Young award, given to the best pitcher that year, and leading his team to a World Series victory. From 1981 to 1986, he was arguably the best pitcher in the entire league. His greatness on the mound led to an influx of Mexican baseball fans to support the Dodgers franchise, and continue to even after almost 40 years of Valenzuela not being on the team. 

ATHLETES AROUND THE WORLD have made a massive impact on their sport and played to hall of fame careers, like Danish NFL kicker Morten Andersen, Swedish NHL right wing Daniel Alfredsson, Argentinian NBA shooting guard Manu Ginóbili, Dominican MLB third baseman Adrián Beltré and countless others.

Each of these players made their respective sport’s Hall of Fame, and the amount of foreign hall of fame talent continues to grow.

Moving to a different state is hard enough on its own. Now imagine moving to a brand new country as an 18-year-old who doesn’t speak fluent English and having to compete against some of the best athletes in the world at your sport. 

Milwaukee Bucks power forward Giannis Antetokounmpo had to endure all of this when he was drafted in 2012. Antetokounmpo was a solid player from his debut to 2016, but since 2017, he has been arguably the best player in the NBA. Serbian center Nikola Jokić of the Denver Nuggets and Slavic point guard Luka Dončić of the Dallas Mavericks both are some of the best NBA players who all happen to be foreign. 

Each one of these players are being paid insane amounts of money each year, ranging from $40 to $47 million per year and reaching upwards of $250 million total. In the MLB, all stars are from everywhere across the globe like Japan’s Shohei Ohtani, Puerto Rico’s Francisco Lindor, Australia’s Liam Hendriks and countless others. Ohtani signed a fully guaranteed contract worth $700 million, Lindor a fully guaranteed contract worth $341 million, and Hendriks a $54 million contract – the sixth largest deal for a relief pitcher in history.

DESPITE ALL OF THIS, professional sports leagues outside of the US are often considered as second tier organizations with a less skilled pool of players. Oftentimes, professional athletes who can’t agree to a professional contract with American teams pivot to signing with teams in foreign leagues like Japan’s NPB (Nippon Professional Baseball) or Korea’s KBO (Korean Baseball Organization). This just adds to the stigma that sports leagues outside of the US are inferior to those in the West. 

In spite of the views on foreign leagues, the MLB is known for having a large percent of non-American players. This most recent season, 28 percent of all MLB players were foreign born.

In 2023, the fifth World Baseball Classic was played. Similar to the World Cup, players across the world join their respective country’s team to compete for the title. The US created a so-called “super team” with all stars and MVPs across the board and looked to be the clear favorite to win. Japan’s team would end up winning the tournament, beating the US’s team in the championship game 3-2. 

Why do American sports seem to have so many foreign star players now compared to years prior, then?

Following the WBC, Japan’s baseball scene blew up worldwide. MLB outfielder Lars Nootbaar was a star during team Japan’s run, and gained over a million followers during the time of the tournament. Other Japanese stars, like pitchers Roki Sasaki and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, are both arguably the best in Japan, with Yamamoto signing a $325 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. 

Besides the MLB, both current and former NBA players like Antetokounmpo, Jokić, Germany’s Dirk Nowitzki and China’s Yao Ming have paved the way for even more foreign players to prove themselves in the United States. 

With the support of global tournaments like the WBC, World Cup, Olympics and others, sports owners have the opportunity to spread their sport in ways unimaginable in years previously. Foreign players being some of the biggest the sports have seen in years has helped tremendously and will continue to for years to come.

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About the Contributor
Rogers Levitt, Staff
From playing Mozart’s sonatas on my upright Yamaha to watching a baseball soar into the bright day sky from my bat, I’ve always been driven to be the best. As a rookie journalist, I aspire to take my same dedication to become a noteworthy and dependable writer. With every story, I will report facts in an entertaining fashion with the hopes of drawing readers. When I am not honing my journalistic craft, I can be found at my piano, on the Van Nuys baseball field, or in my kitchen elevating my homemade ramen.
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