Selling a whole new ball game

The US passion for basketball has always left Britain and the rest of Europe cold – until now. The sport is gaining fans over here, and marketing it is as great a challenge as any championship. By Joe Fernandez

Not content with being huge in the US, the National Basketball Association (NBA) is eyeing international expansion as its next big challenge, aiming to create a large enough fan base to justify the creation of an NBA basketball league in the UK and make Brits huge fans of the slamdunk phenomenon.

The company, which has an annual turnover of $4bn (£2.5bn), set up an office in the UK last year. Last week, sports channel ESPN signed a deal to broadcast 100 live basketball games and studiobased highlights shows, and the BBC will show shorter highlights online and broadcast on Radio 5 Live. This will include games shown at lunchtime on Sundays in the US, so that global fans can experience prime-time matches as they occur.

These are significant deals for the NBA. In the US, a domestic TV deal with networks ABC, ESPN and TNT to televise NBA games until the 2015/16 season is worth $7.5bn (£4.7bn). Its merchandise is already sold in more than 100,000 in 100 countries.

Sophie Goldschmidt, managing director of NBA EMEA, says the aim of the new broadcasting deals is to take the next steps in raising the sport’s profile in the UK and Europe.

“Basketball has always had a large following globally, but it has been difficult for fans overseas to enjoy it. These new deals mean fans can keep up to date with any of our 1,700 games when they want to on demand,” she says.

The NBA’s online video-on-demand service, NBA League Pass, already sees UK fans topping the international subscribers’ list. Chicago Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro expects there will be NBA teams based in Europe within a few years. But the NBA has been attempting to break into the football-dominated UK market since 1993. Three years ago, it launched a pre-season tour called NBA Europe Live. The last game in the UK, which took place last week, sold out on the day tickets were released. Sponsor Adidas has also held tournaments called NBA 5ive, allowing fans to compete on courts such as The O2 arena.

Max Hamilton, marketing director for NBA EMEA, explains: “The matches help us to highlight what the NBA actually does and allow fans to watch a game of top-quality basketball live in their country. A version also goes to Asia and South America. It’s all about expanding our global presence and standing out from the other sports.”

The association is also supporting the exhibition games with grassroots and experiential marketing. The NBA also runs print ads, encourages its commercial partners to do the same and has compiled a database of fans to communicate with more directly.

One grassroots scheme is called Take to the Courts, and restores and re-opens disused basketball courts for the public to play in. For its experiential push, British sports stars, including boxer Joe Calzaghe and footballers Rio Ferdinand and Didier Drogba, were chosen by the NBA to promote its open weekend on Clapham Common in London a fortnight ago, in an attempt to attract fans of other sports. Ads on Facebook, print titles and the radio station Global challenged fans to “take their best shot”. There was also a partnership with the Premier League and Chelsea Football Club.

Fans could also play computer games and watch basketball footage on screens in an NBAbranded “Jam Van”. Hamilton says this part of the association’s marketing generates buzz around the brand.

“It’s important that we are seen by fans as not just a touring sports association, but one that is actually looking to engage with them and get them involved with the game. We want to show them that we know it is difficult for them to watch the NBA live, but it is possible to play the game in an NBA environment whenever they want to,” he says.

The association claims that basketball is now the second most-played sport in UK schools and it is working closely with the British Basketball League to help encourage more youngsters to play the sport more often. It has hired Britishborn players Luol Deng and Pops Mensah-Bonsu to be brand ambassadors for it.

“Everyone dreams of being an NBA player when they play basketball, so we like to inspire people around the world. It reminds them that they can make it to the top and there are international scouts there, looking to sign them up as soon as they turn 19. Right now, we have 77 international players from 33 countries and we want to keep growing,” says Goldschmidt.

Experts say that the NBA has got off to a good start in Europe, but needs to do more to crack a tough market, which already has a heavy emphasis on other sports. Rupert Pratt, managing director of consultancy Generate Sponsorship, comments: “To crack Europe successfully, the NBA needs to stage much more activity throughout the year in these regions, provide Europe with access to the big NBA stars and build stronger connections. Staging regular matches, for example, would be a good start.

“The European fans need to feel part of the NBA family and the recent game between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz at The O2 is evidence of this intent. Furthermore, it needs to develop and nurture European (and global) talent, as other successful leagues have done. Successful imports (or exports) have been Yao Ming from China and British forward Luol Deng.” Pratt adds that sponsors should play a role in encouraging this growth. “Sponsorship partners need more than their association with a prestigious sporting brand,” he says. “There needs to be a depth of engagement beyond the occasional showcase and sporadic talent. The sport of basketball doesn’t need to improve its image – it has a thriving youth programme and a relatively successful European pro league. But the English Premier League built its global success by attracting the best football talent (on and off the field) from around the world and then re-exporting it.

“The NBA needs a star from every territory in order to perform on a global stage. This will drive grassroots participation and TV distribution, and on current evidence it seems to be on track.” A further part of developing the game will see the NBA work closely with Team GB before the 2012 Olympic Games in London, as well as helping to establish a sporting legacy afterwards. Goldschmidt says that, at the Beijing Olympics last year, 24 out of the 36 basketball medallists were NBA players, and the association helped the Chinese to create the court for use during and after the games. NBA commissioner David Stern has already offered the assistance of his organisation to Britain’s drive to take part in the 2012 Olympics.

Goldschmidt says: “Basketball was the most popular sport at the last Olympics and we hope to see this success again here in London. Since NBA players were allowed to participate in 1992, it has become one of the most eagerly anticipated Olympic sports. Such interest can only help to inspire people to watch, and then play the sport, which is what we are all about.”

She adds: “Further down the road, there is the potential to develop a league extension of what’s in the US.” This format sees teams competing throughout the year under NBA rules and restricted to signing team deals only with firms based within a 70-mile radius of their team base. The NBA controls all other partnership deals and places strict salary caps on players’ wages.

It also boosts its reputation through running charitable initiatives. This includes its charity programme, NBA Cares, to which teams and players have already donated more than $110m (£69m). A similar programme, called Basketball without Borders, is run in Africa, helping children to enjoy basketball and NBA donating funds to causes including Aids treatment. Hamilton says: “The NBA’s famous logo has been spreading its presence globally. It is an established brand experience that most people are familiar with now. Our charity work has expanded this and helped make the association go beyond sport, by showing that it has a humanitarian element to it as well. It can only help with our international expansion plans.” The efforts the NBA has invested in to date seem to underline the serious nature of its global ambitions, and Goldschmidt says she is confident that the UK will begin to see an increase in interest in the sport.

“The UK’s basketball league has made admirable advances, and the standard of play is improving. However, there is still room to grow and we have laid the foundations for this over the past few years. We will continue to build on this momentum and aspire to make the NBA a lasting brand experience that fans want to engage with across Europe,” she pledges.

Facts & Figures: NBA

  • The NBA was founded in 1946 as a sports and entertainment brand for basketball in the US.
  • It now has global reach and has 30 teams based in the US and Canada.
  • The association has an annual turnover of
    $4bn (£2.5bn).
  • During the 2008/09 season, NBA games were broadcast in 215 countries and territories in 41 languages.
  • In the last season, the NBA hosted 345 international events in 158 cities and 24 countries outside the US.
  • Currently, there are 77 international players from 33 countries and territories on NBA rosters.
  • NBA merchandise is sold in more than 100,000 stores in 100 countries on six continents.
  • NBA.com averages more than 5 million daily visits, with more than 50% of the site’s visitors coming from outside North America.
  • Through NBA Cares, the league, its teams and players have donated more than $110m to charity, provided more than 1 million hours of hands-on service to communities around the world, and created more than 425 places where kids and families can live, learn or play.
  • In June 2007, the NBA reached eight-year agreements with ABC, ESPN and TNT to televise its games until the 2015/16 season in the US, reportedly worth $7.5bn (£4.7bn).
  • NBA has now centralised its EMEA offices in London in a bid to achieve global expansion. It also has offices in China.
  • Estimates suggest the NBA makes up to $490m (£308m) in sponsorship deals. Some of its big name partners include Hewlett- Packard, T-Mobile, EA Sports and Adidas.
  • Since 1992, NBA players have been allowed to participate in the Olympic Games. In Beijing last year, 24 out of the 36 basketball medallists were NBA players.

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