Senior editor Hank Hersch admits he initially viewed the subject of the globalization of sports (page 72) with a bit of trepidation. How, he wondered, do you get your arms around a story that's as much about the spread of NASCAR into France and arena football into Europe, as it is about the sale of Shaquille O'Neal jerseys in Shanghai? How do you sum up the state of a phenomenon that was already gathering momentum in the early 1980s, when NBA commissioner David Stern began air-mailing videocassettes of games to a TV station in Rome? "There had been so much written about sports crossing borders and how wonderful it all is," Hersch, a 19-year veteran of SI, says. "The challenge for us was to cut through the hype and provide a fresh perspective."
Hersch's first move was to send an e-mail to the staff eliciting their thoughts and opinions on the subject. Two hours later he received a 2,000-word reply from senior writer Grant Wahl suggesting story angles to pursue, including the status of basketball in Africa, American football in Samoa and soccer in the U.S.
Because of the far-flung destinations involved, Hersch arranged for Wahl to re-team with senior writer L. Jon Wertheim, his partner on several previous projects, including a piece last December about hazing on the football team at Long Island's Mepham High and 1998's "Where's Daddy," about the shocking number of out-of-wedlock children born to professional athletes. SI's globalization team then began mapping out the four-part series that kicks off in this issue.
Wahl's reporting took him to a basketball camp for big men in Zaria, Nigeria, where the lights in the gym didn't always function. Throughout his stay, players desperate to break into the U.S. or European systems would swarm around him with their e-mail addresses in hand. "So many players want to get out," Wahl says, "and it's pretty poignant because the vast majority won't."
In Shanghai, where Wertheim met with more than a dozen sports administrators, weak electricity was not the problem. "Everyone talks about China being the next frontier," says Wertheim, "but there was nothing frontierlike about places I saw. The scale, excitement and buzz of Shanghai makes Manhattan look like a country town." Wertheim also traveled to the tiny hamlet of Pori, Finland, where, at an ice rink, he found a video game in which kids could pit Kobe Bryant against Kevin Garnett. Back at his hotel that night, he flipped on his TV and saw the New York Islanders playing the Colorado Avalanche. "Even in the Wyoming of Finland," Wertheim says, "you can get your American sports fix."
Whether or not that's an entirely good thing is one question SI will explore over the coming weeks. In the meantime—and at the risk of planting a maddening song in your head—be assured that the once wide world of sports is a small world after all.