NBA still growing around the world
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 12 international offices, established seven 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, and their has been rapid growth in India over the past decade.
But in terms of global popularity, soccer is still tops. The NBA model of academies seems to be loosely based on what soccer teams around the world have been doing for years; some of the top international clubs have set up those academies in the United States, and the NBA is taking its academies into other parts of the planet.
Simon Chadwick, a Sports Enterprise professor at Salford Business School in Manchester, England, urged caution when relying too much on data coming out of China. He said the NBA’s benchmark in China is obvious, but that the league still needs to work hard “in new and emergent sports markets” if Silver’s hope of basketball supplanting soccer is to be realized.
“Getting the strategy right across these different territories is going to be a crucial factor in any potential growth in basketball’s global popularity,” Chadwick said. “Will basketball become the world’s favorite sport? It is not inconceivable, although it is unlikely — at least in the short to medium-term.”
China’s affinity for the game isn’t truly understood until seen in person.
Marvin Johnson moved from the Miami area to China in 2017 to teach and coach at a basketball academy there.
“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.”
Chinese fans watch a preseason game between the Dallas Mavericks and the Philadelphia 76ers in Shenzhen on Monday.