David Stern discusses the future of NBA in India

You may be just sitting on your computer, procrastinating, scrolling down your Facebook Home Page, and you notice that a higher-than-usual number of status updates mention the three letters ‘N-B-A’. You may be channel surfing on your couch back home, pausing to watch the ‘Real NBA’ show on Ten Sports. You may be heading out to play in an organised basketball tournament with your friends, but instead of just wearing your regular plain white T-shirt, you have a shirt that says the words ‘Mahindra NBA Challenge’ across it. You notice that some of the best players in your neighbourhood and in your city aren’t just breaking into your city or state teams, but are getting special interest and scouting through the eyes of expert NBA coaches.

Steadily, over the past three or four years, the NBA has become a bigger part of Indian culture than ever before. A decade ago, I could never imagine that an NBA player would step foot in the country. This week, we will see the 21st official visit by an NBA/WNBA player or legend – Robert Horry – not to mention the half-dozen or so others who visited unofficially from NBA affiliation. A decade ago, the NBA seemed like a faraway world, a world so different and alien to our own, and we watched our favourite stars from thousands of kilometres away in India like we look up and gaze at the stars. Today, those same stars are visiting us and jostling to garner our attention. A decade ago, NBA fans were a rare breed in India, lurking in the shadows behind other sports fans across the country while Cricket dominated and the English Premier League grew. Today – while they are still a minority – NBA fans don’t have the privilege of feeling rare and special anymore: a new generation of fans have cropped with knowledge and passion, not just for the NBA but for the growing status of basketball in India.

Several years ago, NBA’s commissioner David Stern made it clear that he had an agenda to make the ‘NBA’ brand more internationally popular. No other American league has the same type of international recognisability that the NBA enjoys. Part of the credit for this goes back to the great Michael Jordan, who became synonymous with the word ‘basketball’ all around the world in the 90s. Part of the credit goes to the 1992 Olympics Dream Team, which thrilled the world in Barcelona and inspired a generation of new basketball players and fans. A major part of the credit goes to Yao Ming, the man who singlehandedly touched the vein of a billion people in China and made the world’s largest population into NBA and basketball fans.

But in recent years, the credit goes to the way that the NBA has been marketed worldwide, through its teams, its famous players, and of course, the beauty of the game of basketball. China was the first big step; the world’s second-largest population – India – has to be the second. The NBA has responded to this challenge by opening their first-ever office in the country, sending expert coaches like Troy Justice to train and scout players in India, hosting several grassroots basketball events in many different Indian cities, increase the amount of television programming, of celebrity events, of merchandise, and heavily increasing their presence on the internet. Without a marquee star like Yao Ming to lead the show and attempting to divert attention from the culturally ingrained sport of cricket, the challenge in India has been far tougher than that of China. But things are moving in the right direction.

And now, what will be the next step?

Speaking at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York on September 6th, Stern spoke about the NBA’s growing revenue and projected growth in the future. But he also stressed on the league’s desire to increase its brand in India. Some of the highlights of his talk: a Hindi-English NBA website, more television agreements, more NBA tournaments, and potentially, a basketball league in India that bears the NBA name.

According to a report on Stern’s talk by Eben Novy-Williams for Bloomberg News, Stern conceded that some NBA owners have objected to the league’s overseas investments (which include a heavy focus on China and India) because there isn’t always a high return.

“We can deliver more dollars, but frankly my view has been that if there’s one area you should be investing in heavily is international and digital,” Stern said.

More from Novy-Williams’ report:

The Hindi website comes from the model of webpages the league has in China with and, according to Stern.

The league is also sponsoring events in India, which has a population of over 1.2 billion, second only to China. It sponsors the Mahindra NBA Challenge, a grassroots clinic that started last year, and is scheduling a four-city tournament presented by Coca-Cola Co.’s Sprite brand, which will include more than 100 teams in Delhi, Hyderabad, Chennai and Mumbai.

The NBA and IMG Worldwide Inc. have been in talks about creating a league in India, Bloomberg News reported this year citing two people with knowledge of the discussions.

“Frankly we don’t think the market is quite ready for a full-blown league,” Stern said today. “We’re more anxious in building up the other aspects of our business, our marketing partnerships, our merchandise, our television and our events.”

Firstly, how useful would a Hindi NBA website be in India? Unlike China, India is far more English-literate, and most people who have access to the internet can also read and write basic English. Still, expanding to a new language can’t hurt, and if it is done right, it would help a larger audience be informed of NBA events, promotions, or information in the country. How soon before the Tamil, Marathi, Bengali, and Telugu speakers start requesting content in their own scripts?

Secondly, it’s interesting to note that IMG Worldwide and the NBA – two corporations that are definitely looking to capitalise on the same Indian territory (since IMG sponsors the Basketball Federation of India) – are looking to cooperate in helping to launch the long-awaited professional basketball league in India.

But Stern bluntly adds, “Frankly we don’t think the market is quite ready for a full-blown league.” India still has a few more rungs to climb up the ladder before a full-blown league (whether or not it involves the NBA) will be feasible. There are still many organisational issues in the basketball federation which will need to be ironed out before this next, big step. The infrastructure is far from being consistently top-notch across the country. And of course, the consumer market for basketball in India is still not big enough to justify the launch of a potentially-expensive venture like a professional league.

But we are definitely on the right track. Basketball players and fans are understandably impatient that the promised league is yet to see the light of day, but that day can’t be too far away now. When it happens, there will definitely be creases to be ironed out, mistakes to be perfected, and shortcomings that will seem unattainable. But over time, we hopefully might be able to see a product that can improve and give a major boost to hoops in India.

India definitely has the interest of one of the most powerful men in world basketball, David Stern. Indian fans will hope that his vision can come true sooner rather than later.

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Edited by Staff Editor
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