February 24 2017

Diaspora Sports: Welcome to a World of Displaced Teams

Thought Leadership, Rugby, Trends

By Simon Wardle

Tomorrow we will see the debut of the first transatlantic professional sports team. It is not an NFL franchise based in London, or a European soccer team based in the United States. It is a team from Toronto who will play in the third tier of England’s Rugby Football League.

It’s not the team or the sport that is the most important factor about tomorrow’s transatlantic game. What is important is that this game represents the continued emergence of diaspora sports as viable marketing platforms.

Let me explain what I mean by diaspora sports. These are sports – such as rugby, cricket, Gaelic sports, and handball – that have very strong and passionate fanbases within a limited geography somewhere in the world. For a multitude of reasons, that historically included a lack of access to live events from back home, these sports never established themselves in the United States even though a diaspora of people from those countries had made their way to the United States. Today, technology has now created a world of choice and opportunity when it comes to accessing live sporting events from around the world. This proliferation of content has now led to an interesting trend in the business of sport which is the globalization of these local hero sports that we have termed ‘diaspora sports’.

Over the past several years, the sports industry has witnessed the emergence of several trends that are changing the way fans consume and experience sports. From live streaming to virtual and experiential sports to eSports, most of these trends have been discussed and dissected. Octagon has kept our eye on diaspora sports as we believe that it has now reached a tipping point. Unfettered access to content through increasing choices across traditional, digital and social media now allows imported local hero sports like cricket, rugby and even kabaddi to become a cost-effective way for brands to engage with specific target communities.




Sport has long been a unifying force in the world. It has united divided countries, it has served as a catalyst for ending social injustice, it has served as an escape from the hardship of everyday life. On a personal level, a local team or sport can serve as the source of a lifelong emotional connection that binds people to their hometown or the country of their birth. From a cultural perspective, sport can serve to unite communities and this is true for diaspora sports. For decades in and around New York City, immigrants from the Caribbean, India, Pakistan and other former British territories have converted fields into a cricket pitch on the weekend and thereby established a connection to life back home but now the reach and relevance of these diaspora sports is expanding.

Here’s how the Diaspora Sports trend is coming to life.

Social and Participatory – Diaspora Sports are expanding into new regions of the country which means that more and more people can enjoy them from a social (we’re talking real human interaction here) and participatory standpoint. For example, if a cricket fan from the West Indies or India who now lives in Cleveland wants to watch a match with compatriots or join a pickup match at the park, he or she has options to do both.

Digital –The ability to stream live sporting events and share content across social media expedites the globalization of sports and increases fandom. The first day of the 2016 Kabaddi Pro League season had 100 million viewers streaming live from around the world. We will continue to see engagement like this skyrocket for non-traditional sports (as choices increase and the ability to tune into the action gets easier).

Attendance – And now, on Saturday, we will witness a groundbreaking event: the world’s first transatlantic sports team. There has been a lot of talk about the NFL potentially creating a transatlantic franchise based in London. However, tomorrow marks the debut of the world’s first transatlantic professional sports team when the Toronto Wolfpack play their first competitive game in England’s professional Rugby Football League’s domestic (UK) cup competition. 

We have seen both the NFL and NBA go overseas for regular season games, while Europe’s biggest football clubs often take their preseason tours overseas to expand their brand. Saturday’s debut match for the Toronto Wolfpack versus Siddal in Halifax, West Yorkshire (not Nova Scotia) sets a far different precedent.

The game – which will likely be played out in front of a few hundred fans in typically cold and rainy Halifax conditions – could be a very significant milestone in the history of North American sport. It is a harbinger of the emergence of diaspora sports as a viable option for inclusion in a brand’s North American sponsorship portfolio.  And thereby, it offers brands a chance to connect with the profound and deeply personal emotional connection that a diaspora has for their favorite sports.