Commentary: Michael, The Nba, And The Slam Dunking Of Paris

Cedric Didier was cheering. The 24-year-old basketball nut from Grenoble had traveled four hours to see the McDonald's Championship in Paris--but hardly to root for the home team. "Michael, Michael," yelled Didier, decked out in a Chicago Bulls jersey, as Michael Jordan swished another two-pointer. Said Didier: "Jordan is the best player in the world, and the Bulls are the best team in the world."

On Oct. 16-18 at Paris' 13,000-seat Bercy arena, the Bulls--sans Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman--proved that again. As they eased by two European teams to win the tournament, the sold-out games underlined how the soaring worldwide appeal of the National Basketball Assn. has seduced even the supposedly anti-American French. The Bulls also made another point: namely, that when it comes to marketing U.S. products abroad, Jordan and the NBA are a pretty unbeatable team. In fact, a lot of marketers would do well to follow the bouncing ball.

MARKETING LAYUP. Since the Dream Team captured the 1992 Olympic gold medal, sales outside the U.S. of NBA-licensed basketballs, backboards, T-shirts, and caps have soared from $10 million to $500 million. "We saw this huge opportunity abroad, and we jumped," says NBA Commissioner David Stern. A decade ago, the NBA had no international staff or foreign offices. Today, it has 80 workers in 11 offices abroad and plans to double both numbers this year. "We're spending a lot, but we're already profitable," says Paul Zilk, the NBA's international director. Compare that with the National Football League's World League: It has lost an estimated $100 million since its 1990 launch. Even nonsports ventures such as Disneyland Paris are still struggling.

Admittedly, the NBA enjoys several built-in advantages over baseball or American football. Hardly any baseball fields exist in Europe. And imagine trying to explain a squeeze play to a Frenchman. By contrast, Yvan Mainini, the French Basketball Federation's president, says basketball was first played in Paris in 1873, only two years after the game was invented in Massachusetts. "We have 450,000 players in France," Mainini says. Pro leagues exist throughout the Continent but are particularly strong in Southern Europe.

The NBA has shrewdly transformed these European hoop dreams into a marketing layup. When Europe's state broadcasting monopolies were broken up in the 1980s, the league rushed in with attractive offers to newly formed commercial and cable channels. "Michael Jordan came along at the same time that global television was experiencing outstanding growth," Stern says. Some 191 countries now televise NBA games--in 40 languages. Many get broadcasts free of charge or for a minimal fee. "The point isn't to get revenues as much as exposure," Stern explains.

But perhaps the NBA's biggest feat--and its most important lesson for other U.S. companies going global--is restraint. It refuses to start its own European league. "We don't have a Manifest Destiny," says Stern. Even though Disney's theme park outside Paris is recovering, the Mouse blundered by barging into France with an attitude. It has been forced to write off much of its huge investment in oversize hotels and parking lots. Unlike Americans, Europeans prefer to visit the park just for the day and often come by train.

TENSIONS SURFACE. A European NBA could provoke a similar culture clash. Many big European cities don't have American-style indoor arenas, and a new league would be a declaration of war against local basketball groups.

Transatlantic basketball tensions were already surfacing at the championships. After the Bulls beat his team 89-82, Bozidar Maljkovic, coach of PSG Racing, derided the constant TV time-outs and the NBA's showbiz approach--the mascots, vast video screens, and cheerleaders. The French Federation's Mainini says the NBA thinks "about selling shirts. We think about basketball." And the NBA's global glow could fade after Jordan hangs up his sneakers. "When he retires, there is going to be a void no one can fill," concedes Stern.

But the McDonald's Championship was nothing but net for Jordan and the NBA. When European teams played each other, the arena was almost empty. When the Bulls took center stage, the fans--and more than 1,000 journalists--piled in. The crowd, especially teens who, polls show, prefer basketball to soccer, went wild over Jordan's acrobatics. "No French player comes close," said 16-year-old Solien Mekki.

Even for superstar Jordan, the adulation this far from home seemed surprising. "When I first came into the league, I could sit outside [at the cafes] and not be bothered," he recalled. This trip, he couldn't leave his hotel without being mobbed. Michael may long for those peaceful days, but David Stern isn't complaining.

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