Last year’s NBA Finals between the Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs was seen in 215 countries and broadcast in 47 different languages. Basketball and soccer are the two most popular sports in the world and it seems that the league continues to grow exponentially every year. Already very popular in Europe (some European players are among the best in the game, like Dirk Nowitzki and Tony Parker) the NBA has recently been making a large push in the Asian markets, broadcasting games, providing live streaming content, and signing international stars to merchandising deals. For the league, Asia is the final frontier. Conquest there would establish their dominance on a global level. In China, it is already one of the most popular brands and the only American professional sports organization to attain a large following. Through these tactics in Asia, Commissioner Adam Silver thinks the NBA will grow to become more popular internationally than it is domestically.
In 1987, then Commissioner David Stern, took a risk and gave free content to China Central Television (CCT) because they had (and still have) a monopoly, which can make negotiations difficult. The risk paid off for Stern as it became the jumping off point for his Asian expansion. In 2012, with growing popularity, the league and the CCT agreed to a multi-year deal to broadcast more games in homes across China. Because the deal will never be as lucrative as the ones they will get domestically (the whole monopoly thing), the league has been heavily pushing alternative marketing and advertising strategies in the region.
One such strategy is to build a $1.5 billion NBA Center close to Beijing. The project is already being developed by a Chinese company and will contain restaurants, basketball courts, stores selling licensed merchandise and more. Harbin beer, a popular brand in China, reached a licensing deal with the NBA and now has their logo on its bottles. Strategies elsewhere in Asia include deals with a South Korean apparel company, MK Trend, allowing them to alter team logos and sell the merchandise. The merchandise has become a social phenomenon in South Korea and everyone is wearing it, even actors in their television shows. South Korean’s pop culture is very popular throughout Asia as well, so once their celebrities started wearing the MK Trend gear, tourists from neighboring countries went looking to purchase the merchandise that is only sold in South Korea (for now). Jr. NBA is an afterschool basketball program in India for underprivileged children to promote positive life values; it already reaches over 200,000 children
This past season there were four preseason games played internationally; two of those games were in Asia. The league also has two regular season games scheduled to take place internationally (Mexico City and London). There has been talk lately of creating an expansion team in London. There are networks in the Middle East, Europe and Asia that broadcast coverage, as well as Australia and South Africa. As the NBA becomes more popular internationally, they’ve considered altering processes domestically, like moving up game times to accommodate international fans, rather than making them watch live games at odd hours. But for now, this is only being talked about as the logistics and tight schedule would make this very difficult to achieve.
Players in the league have begun to feel the increased popularity as well. The most popular player in China is not their most well-known and native player, Yao Ming, but Kobe Bryant. Earlier this year Kobe went to watch one of China’s premiere basketball teams play and had to cut his trip short after his car was mobbed by Chinese fans. The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat are some of the most popular teams internationally. Nike sends their highest profile players to Asia every year on promotional tours. LeBron James signed a deal with Dunkin’ Donuts and Kobe signed one with Mercedes-Benz to market their products in Asia. Even James Harden said he’s been getting more offers from Asian markets after he started playing for the Houston Rockets, the team Yao Ming played for.
The MLB is another American sports league that has successfully expanded into the international market as well. Unlike the NBA, Major League Baseball plays regular-season games in Japan and this year’s season opener will take place this weekend in Australia; the teams have already arrived to counteract the jet lag. But despite the lack of regular season games in Asia, the NBA has done a better job building a fan base. Games, players and merchandise are more available in Asia than any other American sport; although the New York Yankees hat is the most popular in the world.
In January NBA China (the league’s Chinese off-shoot) announced a deal with SINA Corporation that will produce an original streaming series for Chinese fans; it is based on NBA Inside Stuff. It is yet another way for the international fan base to grow. The NBA generates $5.5 billion annually and only $150 million of that comes from NBA China (in 2002). Still, America has five percent of the world’s population and one of the most popular sports. It is expanding exponentially all over the world and it’s not slowing down. If the NBA becomes just as, if not more popular in Asia than it is in Europe, it is easy to see how it will grow bigger internationally than it currently is domestically.
Commentary by Chris Dragicevich