Washington Needs an NBA Team to be Competitive in International Trade

Well, there’s a blog post title that puts my thesis out there clearly and succinctly. Much better than some of my rejected ideas, like “Washington Drives to the Hoop in International Trade” or “You Can’t Travel Without Traveling.” (That last one especially doesn’t work because they don’t call “traveling” in the NBA anymore.)

So, here’s the thing. The local media has been abuzz with a new proposal to build an NBA/NHL arena in Seattle and “bring back the Sonics.” And, as a sports fan myself, I have to say – regardless of whether this particular proposal is a good one or not – that I’m pretty excited about the possibility. But as an international trade fan, I’m even more excited. Why? Because, as I said in the title of this blog post, Washington needs an NBA team to be competitive in international trade.

Yes, we have many professional sports teams, including the Sounders who play the world’s game (soccer). But, according to a variety of rankings, basketball is in the top five most popular sports in the world. Soccer is number one, of course, and cricket is higher on the list as well (might be time to get a professional cricket team here?), but professional basketball plays a special role in the hearts of some of our largest trading partners, and it is notable to them that we don’t have a team. Back in 2008, the Seattle Times interviewed the Chinese about their love of sports, and the NBA tops the list:

“In the capital city there are more people playing basketball, so we came here to play against better players,” Wang Xiao says. “We love the game. We watch the NBA. The NBA has been very welcoming to China. Sure we would like to play in the Chinese national league, or of course, the NBA. We’ll see what comes, but we just love playing. And I think basketball has become a craze here.”

Clearly, the Yao Ming effect has been key to the Chinese embrace of the NBA. We’ve seen that relationship between countries and their stars here at home with the success of Ichiro on the Mariners. Not only do busloads of Japanese tourists and media come to Safeco Field each year, but it serves as a cross-cultural touchstone; when I was traveling in Japan a few years ago, I would tell people that I was from Seattle and they’d say “Ah, Ichiro!” It builds international community and relationships, and I’ve always said that relationships are the key to doing business, whether you’re talking domestic sales or international trade.

Of course, it’s not just Chinese nationals who play in the NBA, but (really sorry to have to jump on this bandwagon) also Chinese-Americans in the form of Jeremy Lin (go Lin-sanity!). Austin Goolsbee picked up this theme in his recent op-ed entitled “Jeremy Lin and America’s ‘New Exports’.”

Linsanity swept the nation last week. The undrafted Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin seemed to transform himself from benchwarmer to MVP candidate in a matter of days. New York Knicks #17 jerseys became the biggest seller in the NBA and interest in Mr. Lin surged world-wide. That same week we learned that China’s president-to-be, Xi Jinping, is an NBA fan. After meeting President Obama at the White House, Mr. Xi traveled to Iowa and then attended a Lakers game in Los Angeles…When a foreign visitor comes to America on vacation and, like Mr. Xi, buys an NBA ticket in Los Angeles or a lunch in Muscatine, Iowa, those count in official statistics as exports. If a fan in Indonesia watches an NBA game or buys a Jeremy Lin jersey, the royalties count as an export. Many services increase our exports: tuition paid by foreign students, fares paid on U.S. airlines by foreign fliers, ad sales on Google from foreign companies.

These things add up. Last year, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), the U.S. exported $2.1 trillion of goods and services (the most ever) and more than $600 billion of that came from services. Think of them as the New Exports. We already export far more of them than any other country. We export more educations than computers and more tourism than aerospace products or machinery. (emphasis added)

I’ve already spoken at length about the importance of international students ($463 million to our state’s economy) and international tourism(11% of our state’s tourism) as two of our biggest service exports after software. In fact, China is now our state’s 6th largest source of international tourists (it wasn’t even in the top ten a few years ago) and some think they will rise to number one in the coming years.

And we clearly need to understand that folks from other countries make decisions about where visit and/or study based on what they see in media about places in the United States. If they’re hearing about Kobe and the Lakers, they’re more like to go to LA. If they’re hearing about the newly revived Sonics going to the playoffs in their first year back (!!) they have a greater chance to come here…and it wouldn’t hurt if we took advantage of our state’s strong relationship with Asia by adding some Asian or Asian-American players.

Importantly, today’s international tourist or student is tomorrow’s investor into our economy or importer of our goods and services. Imagine how much better it will be to wine and dine potential Chinese trading partners – whether you’re trying to sell airplanes (Boeing) or pizza ovens (Bellingham’s Wood Stone Corporation) or incredibly large cranes (Lampson Crane in Tri-Cities)* – if you can take them to see a basketball game here in town. In fact, a new NBA arena in Seattle might very well be built with some foreign direct investment from Chinese businesspeople, especially since recent statistics show a rising demand among China’s wealthy for investment immigration visas. And we know that foreign direct investment already employs 91,200 Washington workers.

Again, this is not an endorsement of Christopher Hansen’s particular effort, which still needs to be vetted on many issues – including its impact on freight mobility at the ports (a key international trade issue in its own right). But the fact that we’re talking about how to get the NBA back to town in one way or another is not just a sports fan’s interest…it’s a matter of increasing our ability to compete in the global marketplace.


*All companies that export significantly to China.

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