NBA works to ex­pand in­ter­na­tional foot­print

Com­mis­sioner thinks league could be­come most pop­u­lar sport in world

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Tim Reynolds

It was the fi­nal minute of a pre­sea­son game be­tween Philadel­phia and Dal­las, the 76ers were up by four points with the ball, and thou­sands of fans were scream­ing “de­fense” at the top of their lungs.

A com­mon scene, with an un­com­mon de­tail: The game was in China.

“Fan­tas­tic,” Dal­las’ Dirk Now­itzki mar­veled. “Shows our fans are ev­ery­where.”

That fan­dom, and the im­por­tance of those in­ter­na­tional eye­balls, just keeps grow­ing.

The NBA has been go­ing over­seas to play ei­ther pre­sea­son or reg­u­lar sea­son games for 40 years, and the global foot­print of the league — not to men­tion its busi­ness in­ter­ests — con­tin­ues to ex­pand. The league has opened up 11 in­ter­na­tional of­fices, es­tab­lish­ing six acad­e­mies on four con­ti­nents and started broad­cast­ing games to more than 200 coun­tries and ter­ri­to­ries.

This sea­son, the NBA heads back to Mex­ico and Eng­land for reg­u­lar-sea­son con­tests, af­ter the 76ers and Mav­er­icks played ex­hi­bi­tions in China ear­lier this month.

“I believe we can be the No. 1 sport in the world,” NBA Com­mis­sioner Adam Sil­ver said. “When I look at the tra­jec­tory of growth, the fact that young peo­ple, boys and girls, con­tinue to love this sport, are play­ing this sport, are en­gaged in the sport of bas­ket­ball on so­cial me­dia or with on­line games, I don’t know what the limit is.”

The num­bers touted by the NBA are im­pres­sive: 300 mil­lion peo­ple play­ing the game for fun in China alone, rapid growth in In­dia over the past decade as that coun­try is on pace to be­come the world’s most pop­u­lous by 2025, an es­ti­mated 1 bil­lion peo­ple around the globe — that’s ba­si­cally 1 out of ev­ery 7 peo­ple alive — hav­ing some ac­cess to the NBA Fi­nals.

And China — which got to cheer one of its coun­try­men, Ding Yanyuhang, in a pre­sea­son game there this year — is the dom­i­nant force in all that in­ter­na­tional traf­fic.

Marvin John­son moved from the Mi­ami area to China in 2017 to teach and coach at a bas­ket­ball academy there. The first thing he saw when he de­planed in Bei­jing was a mas­sive Li-Ning store, which was ba­si­cally a shrine to Heat guard Dwyane Wade — who now has a life­time con­tract to en­dorse the Chi­nese brand’s prod­ucts.

“Any­time you go out to play bas­ket­ball at a lo­cal court there is a plethora of NBA jer­seys be­ing worn by the play­ers,” John­son said. “If you ask any lo­cal play­ing bas­ket­ball, they can’t name the play­ers on the lo­cal Chi­nese Bas­ket­ball As­so­ci­a­tion team — but they can name their fa­vorite play­ers in the NBA in an in­stant.”

Wade and Heat team­mate Udo­nis Haslem went to China this sum­mer to Dal­las’ Ding Yanyuhang, left, of China tries to strip the ball from Philadel­phia’s Furkan Kork­maz of Tu­nisia dur­ing an NBA pre­sea­son game in China. pro­mote Li-Ning. Ev­ery­where they went, thou­sands of peo­ple were wait­ing, and that’s now stan­dard for when any big­name NBA player heads to Asia. LeBron James has made an an­nual trip to China for years. Stephen Curry dropped some Man­darin on fans there when he vis­ited this sum­mer. Kevin Du­rant played HORSE and didn’t lose. Klay Thomp­son — or “China Klay” — lost at pop-a-shot.

“Life is too short to be se­ri­ous all the time,” Thomp­son said. “You’ve got to be able to show your per­son­al­ity. That’s what I do when I come to China.”

Go­ing to places like China is fun, for cer­tain.

But it’s clearly smart NBAbusi­ness now as well.

“It’s been that way for years,” Wade said. “They’re not just fans in China. They’re knowl­edge­able fans. They know ev­ery­thing about the Heat, about me, about UD, the fi­nals, ev­ery­thing. It def­i­nitely speaks to the growth of not just our league but the game.”

Curry’s sum­mer might have epit­o­mized the mar­riage be­tween the NBA and for­eign cul­tures — not to men­tion crosspro­mo­tion.

He didn’t just go to China. He also hit the Philip­pines, Eng­land, France and Ja­pan. He tossed out the cer­e­mo­nial first pitch at a Ja­panese base­ball game. He shot around with soc­cer star Ney­mar. He watched a Premier League game in Eng­land.

“One of the best sum­mers that I’ve had,” Curry said.

The idea of go­ing global for reg­u­larsea­son games ob­vi­ously isn’t ex­clu­sive to the NBA.

Base­ball opens next sea­son in Ja­pan with a two-game se­ries be­tween Seat­tle and Oak­land. The NFL is play­ing three reg­u­lar-sea­son games in Lon­don in a three-week span that starts Sun­day with — per­haps iron­i­cally — Seat­tle and Oak­land be­gin­ning the slate there, too. The NHL is send­ing Florida and Win­nipeg for a two-game se­ries next month in Fin­land.

“We know what the fu­ture looks like,” NBA deputy com­mis­sioner Mark Tatum said ear­lier this month from China.


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