Each year, in the United States (U.S.), the major professional sports leagues (NBA, NFL, NBA, and MLB) conduct a draft to allocate new players to join teams. In a typical draft, teams take turns selecting players in a predetermined order. The hopeful expectation is that a higher draft pick typically correlates with a player that will be “more successful” or “have more talent.” In the basketball world, leading off an NBA draft as the No. 1 pick is a true honor – instant fame, endorsement offers, and the richest rookie contract. When draft season rolls around, there is always much excitement around which team will get the highly coveted No. 1 draft pick, and more importantly, who that specific pick will be.  

This year’s 2023 NBA draft felt particularly special because of a 7-foot, 3.5 inches tall (without shoes) French national by the name of Victor Wembanyama that was drafted to the San Antonio Spurs. Viewed by many as arguably one of the greatest basketball prospects of his generation since Lebron James, Victor  Wembanyama has displayed his versatility in the early season, thus far. This “rookie’s” ability to move, handle, and shoot the basketball is akin to a center who plays like a point guard, which is a particularly lethal combination. 

Aside from his athleticism, the league, and the sport itself, one factor that may be overlooked is the immigration component in this equation. As a matter of course, individuals that are not U.S. citizens nor lawful permanent residents (green card holders) typically require a visa to engage in work. This same requirement applies to professional athletes as well – athletes coming to the U.S. with the intention of engaging in employment will be required to obtain a work visa first. There are several short-term and long-term visa options that may be available for individual and team athletes, along with their essential support personnel (e.g., coaches, managers, referees, trainers, umpires, scouts, broadcasters, etc.):  

P Visa: In general, P-1 classification is available to established entertainment groups, individual athletes, and athletic teams. The P-1A visa category allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. temporarily to perform at a specific athletic competition as an athlete, individually or as part of a group or team, at an internationally recognized level of performance. This is a lower standard than that for O-1 applicants in athletics (see below), who must have “sustained national or international acclaim.” The P-1 visa category is also available for essential support personnel accompanying the athlete (P-1S classification). Individual P-1 athletes may be admitted for the time needed to complete the event, competition, or performance, not to exceed five years, with an extension of up to 5 years. The period of admission for athletic groups and essential support personnel may not exceed 1 year. 

O-1/EB-1A Visa: The O-1 visa category is available for individuals deemed to be of extraordinary ability in their niche field in business, science, education, athletics, or the arts. Individuals who have won a one-time internationally recognized award (such as an Olympic Medal or World Championship title) are generally qualified based on that award alone. However, in lieu of this, one may also qualify if they meet at least three of the enumerated categories of evidence such as: awards, published material about the applicant, membership in an organization that requires outstanding achievements etc. Managers, coaches, trainers offering essential support to the O-1 principal applicant may obtain O-2 status. The period of authorized stay for O nonimmigrants is the time required to complete the initial event or activity, not to exceed 3 years. O-1 status can be extended indefinitely in increments between 1 to 3 years. 

The EB-1A category is a special green card category available to individuals of extraordinary ability in the field with criteria that bears similarity to the O-1A temporary visa category and is subject to a higher standard of review by USCIS. 

B-1 Business Visitor Visa: The B-1 visa may be an option for foreign national athletes to temporarily visit the U.S. for business-related travel (but not engage in productive labor nor employment). Examples of permissible activities may include contract negotiations, short-term training, or participating in professional/business conferences or conventions. Moreover, professional athletes who will not be receiving any compensation, aside from prize or tournament money, may be eligible for this visa. B-1 visa holders are granted up to a 6-month period of admission. Moreover, certain nationals of visa-exempt countries may instead qualify for U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). Through ESTA, eligible citizens and nationals of visa-exempt countries may travel to the U.S. for tourism or business purposes for up to 90 days, without first obtaining a U.S. visa. stamp. 

The NBA has solidified its position as an international sport, with more than 100 players born outside of the U.S. on rosters, as of opening night. Wembanyama may be a generational talent poised to take over the NBA, but careful immigration planning and strategy allow him to continue to wreak havoc on the court.