The NBA Is Primed For International Growth

Exterior. Venice Beach. The sun offers a reassuring afternoon glow as a group of street basketballers play for bragging rights in front of a single steel-chained hoop. Billy Hoyle watches from a distance, an orange Spalding in hand. That’s when the court’s de facto leader Sidney Deane sees an easy target and invites him for a game. “I don’t mean to brag, but I’m the greatest,” he says with unwavering confidence. Hoyle smiles, turning his tie-dye hat inwards indicating he’s ready for a one-on-one.

These are the opening exchanges of Ron Shelton’s fun basketball comedy White Men Can’t Jump. It’s a film that helped make superstars of Woody Harrelson and Wesley Snipes. It was also a box office hit in and outside North America, becoming the 20th best-selling Hollywood movie internationally in 1992. Films like this one have certainly assisted basketball’s notoriety outside the United States. Familiar titles like drama Hoosiers and documentary Hoop Dreams continue to enjoy critical acclaim internationally. Both rank among the best basketball movies of all times (together with White men can’t jump.)

Yet, the sport’s core fanbase remains Stateside. But it’s no secret that the NBA has aspirations to make basketball the world’s biggest sport. It could achieve that ambition too if it continues to successfully penetrate the huge Chinese market from which it has made major strides in recent years. Forbes.com indicated that data from 2017-2018 showed that 640 million Chinese spectators watched some kind of US basketball; that’s two times the population of the USA.

The NBA Is Primed For International Growth

International Strategy in Motion

This has informed the league’s international strategy over the last two years. Part of its focus is on the TV networks. It has boosted its links with the likes of CCTV, Guangdong TV, Best TV, Tencent, and Weibo. The sport has also reported an average of 28 million viewers each week in China for its flagship NBA Primetime show. The NBA also made a deal with ByteDance. This was quick to prove dividends. A short clip of Andre Drummond scoring a 3-pointer in practice went viral via the network. It acquired 33 million views along the way.

This is backed by efforts to support basketball in the country at a grassroots level. The NBA has set up the youth programs Playzones and Jr. NBA, to encourage children to play the game alongside opportunities to develop skill levels. This feeds into its Jr. NBA World Championship with participants from all over the world competing at the Florida-based finals.  

Yet, one of the NBA’s most potent PR tools to drive the game in international territories is its Global Games schedule. Last season saw the Brooklyn Nets take on the Los Angeles Lakers at the Mercedes-Benz Arena in Shanghai. The two teams played again two days later at Shenzhen Dayun Arena in Shenzhen. Those match-ups were two of several fixtures scheduled around the globe. These included the Houston Rockets versus the Toronto Raptors in Japan, the Indiana Pacers tackling the Sacramento Kings in India, and the Charlotte Hornets meeting the Milwaukee Bucks in France.

New Opportunities

As Court Side Newspaper explains, it perhaps seems surprising that, during this unprecedented period without live professional sports, the NBA’s global ambitions could profit. But that might be the case with the recent unveiling of an eSports one-on-one tournament. It features some of the league’s top players. We’ve seen it work in other sports, such as Formula One, and here 16 NBA professionals will pick up a controller to play NBA 2K20 on Xbox One. The winner will get $100,000 to donate to charity.

Featured players include Kevin Durrant, Trae Young, Andre Drummond, and Montrezl Harrell with the tournament screened live worldwide on ESPN. While most active video game players are based in the United States, data shows that the latest official NBA release for Xbox and PS4 enjoys international popularity. It’s particularly hot in south-east Asia, Australia, Canada, and Hong Kong. It’s also one of the ways the sport can not only ingratiate itself with new and long-term fans, but educate players on the intricacies of the game.

In addition, it’s an opportunity to penetrate different markets. eSports is blossoming by making video gaming a spectator event. That, in turn, means more airtime and potentially new marketing opportunities. For example, with the combination of sports and technology fans creating a new audience demographic. Similarly, an eSports event means the NBA can reignite competitive action on the betting markets. Sportsbook newcomers can learn how to play, what jargon like moneyline, hedge, and point spread means, and where to place their bets, at sites like Legalbetting.com. Coincidentally, seasoned players have the chance to take a look at a game they may not have previously been interested in. At a time when live-action is at a premium, the NBA’s foray into eSports could be a significant step towards widening its reputation across the globe.

A global fanbase that’s growing

“Our fans are everywhere,” said former Dallas player Dirk Nowitzki after his side was closely defeated by the 76ers in a 2018 preseason game held in China. He was right then, and his statement rings even truer today. Indeed, the popularity of the NBA continues to grow with domestic ratings up 4% according to recent Nielsen figures. That’s part of a global estimated audience of 825 million, putting basketball ahead of baseball, rugby, and golf. It’s therefore clear why the NBA feels confident it has a product that can not only flourish outside North America but dominate in international territories.

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