“If we get our grassroot programmes going bigger and kids across this country start bouncing the ball rather than kicking it or hitting it with a strange paddle, there will be an enormous influx of very good and talented athletes into our game.”- David Stern.
I’ve never quite heard cricket being described so cheekily. I’ve derided the strange paddle bearing pastime in various ways, but this is the wittiest remark yet. David Stern is on a visit to India to announce a partnership between Magic Bus and the NBA to launch NBA Cares initiatives to promote education, health and fitness to boys and girls aged 7-14 starting in June 2013. The commissioner of the NBA is in Mumbai till the 11th. Magic Bus already has made headway in using sports for the development of kids in India, having reached 250,000 children and 8,000 youth across the country.
David Stern’s visit to India brings up several questions. When will an Indian make it to the NBA? When will a basketball league come up in India? When will we see basketball emerge from the shadows of cricket or football? Stern answered the possibility of an Indian making it to the NBA, “We already had a woman (Geetu Anna Jose) try out for WNBA and we would expect to have men and women showing up for each of our professional leagues. If you need a specific answer, I would say five years. If you had asked me 20 years ago, I would have said I don’t know. Now 85 out of our 400 players are born outside the USA. It depends on individual athlete and how they are going to go about. The one thing we do is to work as close as possible with the Basketball Federation of India through grassroots and other events to make it as easy as possible for elite Indian athletes to spend more time playing basketball.” Stern said. While one may think that Satnam Singh is the only realistic prospect for India to make it to the NBA, there are a lot of young players coming up who have the skills to make a name in leagues outside India – one prospect being Amritpal Singh Jr, who met Stern in Mumbai.
Although India doesn’t have a league just yet, the rights of Indian basketball are firmly in the hands of IMG Reliance. They have a 30-year partnership with the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) to develop basketball in India. They hold the commercial rights – including sponsorship, advertising, broadcasting, merchandising, film, video and data, intellectual property, franchising and new league rights. One of the questions posed to David Stern was if he thinks the NBA is stuck in its interests in India because of IMG Reliance holding the rights. He said “We don’t consider ourselves stuck at all. The opportunity to have our games on Sony Six is a wonderful opportunity. The opportunity to have our merchandise and 3×3 tournaments is enormous. We don’t consider ourselves to be stuck in any place at all but just with a great upside. We continue to have excellent relations with BFI and we continue to dialogue with our good friends at Reliance and IMG. As we have said we have had discussions in the past and they are on going. We have seen that we complement each other very well in our activities.”
On one hand, you would want exclusive control over the market you want to control; but that market is not a profitable one just yet in the country. Although the BFI, IMG Reliance and the NBA are each looking to have control over basketball in India at different levels, their interests overlap in a way which leads to each party being able to benefit from the other. The NBA doesn’t want to direct all its investment in organizing a basketball league in India as much as it wants to spread its primary product, the NBA league. With the expansion in digital media, with broadband and 3G making its way deeper and deeper in India, we present an attractive target consumer audience to the NBA for its product. Their primary interest is in developing the love of the game and creating fans of the game. For BFI, the goal is to create talented players and expand the game. For IMG Reliance, the goal is to make basketball a commercially viable commodity in India. Of course, there are a lot of variables involved in creating an alliance between three such diverse bodies; but in theory, at least it makes sense that their interests are all complementary to each other.
The NBA opened its office in Mumbai in 2011 and has hosted more than 450 events in 10 cities over the last five years. Their foray in the country with NBA Cares initiatives began in 2008 with the Basketball Without Borders program and since then they have gone from strength to strength in the country in promoting the game and grassroots development. A lot of superstars have been to India, including Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Baron Davis, and Brandon Jennings. And now the commissioner himself has come to the country to add a personal touch. David Stern will retire as the commissioner in 2014 and will be replaced by Adam Sliver. Earlier, Adam had said of the NBA’s expansion in countries like India and China - “Initially the growth is going to come from digital media. For example, I was in Beijing and Shanghai last week meeting with our media partners there. We currently have 55 million followers of the NBA on social media platforms in China. We’re now in the 26th year of a partnership with CCTV in China and have a very healthy slate of sponsors there. Probably most important for the long term growth for the NBA, participation levels continue to increase among the Chinese youth, both boys and girls. Right now it’s our second largest market. But who knows in a country of 1.3 billion what the opportunities will ultimately be?”
Even though it may be some time before an India makes it to the NBA, there are other ways the country is being represented in the NBA. With Vivek Ranadivé’s increased presence across the league with his stakes in the Golden State Warriors and plans to expand with the Sacramento Kings, there is another face the NBA has to represent basketball in India. Closer to home, little by little basketball is growing in India in various ways. Mahindra NBA Challenge, NBA 3X, NBA Cares, NBA Jam, etc are different programs the NBA is spearheading in India to spread the game. There is no telling how far the game can go in India in the next five years.