This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's November 23 QB Issue. Subscribe today!
ON NOV. 14, the Washington and Texas basketball teams will open their seasons in Shanghai, facing off in an arena by the Huangpu River that looks like a deserted spaceship (or as its owners say, "a fresh tumescent pearl"). The matchup will be the first regular-season game played by any American sports league, collegiate or professional, in China. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott says he came up with the idea while watching an exhibition in China between UCLA and the Shanghai Sharks, with retired NBA star Yao Ming, who told him that Chinese basketball fans would flock to a regular-season game. He remembers Yao saying, "If they saw two teams competing with something on the line -- if they saw the caliber, it would blow them away."
Shortly after becoming the Pac-12's commissioner in 2009, Scott began pressing into China, sending six basketball, soccer and volleyball teams there on summer tours. He's planning another hoops opener there in 2016, and he hopes this will turn into an annual tip-off game. International football is also on the horizon, he says: "We've got schools that are interested in playing in Australia, Canada, Mexico and China."
Like every moneymaking entity in America, the Pac-12 is training its gaze overseas in search of growth. But the conference is hawking more than a game. When universities send their teams abroad, they aren't just looking to sell tickets, T-shirts and advertisements -- the teams are the advertisements, a physical manifestation of the product that is an American college education. "It's about turning people into fans of the University of Washington, not Washington basketball," explains Charles Clotfelter, author of Big-Time Sports in American Universities.
This push is being driven by a public budget crunch in the U.S., where many large universities are trimming costs and increasing in-state tuition. International students, most of whom pay full tuition, offer a palliative. At Washington, where nearly 20 percent of the applicants this year hailed from China, foreigners fork over $51,000 a year, compared with $27,034 for state residents (many of whom pay less with the help of aid). Unsurprisingly, the number of Chinese students attending U.S. colleges has risen by more than 75 percent since 2010, to about 275,000, according to the Institute of International Education. Four of the 10 American schools with the most international students belong to the Pac-12; at USC, for example, more than 10 percent of the student body now hails from China (this doesn't include Chinese Americans).
And so it is that, immediately after the Washington-Texas game, the Pac-12 is putting on a college expo for thousands of Chinese high school students. "I can't overstate the interest that families in China have in sending their kids to prestigious Pac-12 universities," Scott says.
In addition to promoting the conference's schools, he also hopes to grow interest in its teams, which could translate into sponsorships and media contracts down the road. (E-commerce giant Alibaba is footing the bill for Washington's trip.) The Pac-12 faces stiff competition; the intercollegiate sports model doesn't exist in China, and schools will vie for attention with the NBA, which signed a $700 million digital deal in January. But the conference, which has been streaming basketball games -- and, as of this fall, football games -- through Chinese digital provider LeTV, has a leg up on the pros, according to Scott. "Unlike the NFL and NBA, our schools already have big brands," he says, noting that more than 30 Chinese shops are licensed to sell UCLA-branded clothing.
The Pac-12 isn't the only conference with international ambitions. Penn State, Notre Dame and Navy have all played football in Dublin recently, and Texas is itching to play a game in Mexico City. Longhorns fans flew into a tizzy this spring when former coach Mack Brown was spotted in Dubai; then-athletic director Steve Patterson shot down the football rumor but said other sports, such as golf, could play in the Middle East. In recent years, more than a dozen college basketball teams have held exhibitions in countries ranging from South Korea to Cuba. Like Washington and Texas, these schools are looking to cultivate fans abroad -- especially ones who might be willing to fill out an application.