NBA Sets Its Sights on Britain

In barely five seconds, desperate defence turns into devastating attack. The Utah Jazz forward has missed his shot, the ball rebounding off the rim of the basket to Chicago Bulls point guard Kirk Hinrich. Spotting that Luol Deng, the Sudan-born Briton, has made a break and gained the best part of five metres on the Jazz defence, Hinrich launches a pass the length of the basketball court.

Nonchalantly, Deng catches the ball one-handed and performs the game's simplest shot, the layup, to score two points and tie at 14-14. The capacity crowd at London's O2 Arena breaks into rapturous applause.

Looking on is Adam Silver, the chief operating officer and deputy commissioner of the $4bn-turnover National Basketball Association (NBA). The organisation is the sport's powerhouse and turned Michael Jordan and Earvin '"Magic" Johnson into global superstars.

Silver was in the UK for four days last week as part of his mission to accelerate growth outside its core US market. Overseas pre-season friendlies such as the Bulls-Jazz game, which Deng's team won by a single point right at the death, is a key part of this.

The morning of the game, Silver is in the NBA's European headquarters on Kensington High Street, West London. Slim, long-limbed and seemingly taller than his 6ft 3in, Silver, who is often cited in sport power lists, has the frame of a basketball player, but looks and sounds like a geekier John Malkovich.

Silver—a lawyer by training—soon rolls out the statistics that show why the global growth drive is so vital to the NBA's business model: nearly 10 per cent of revenue are generated outside the US. And international business, such as merchandise sales and TV rights, is far outstripping the near-saturated US market's growth rate and should reach 15 per cent of business by the 2012 London Olympics. "In the US," he says, "we sell over 90 per cent of all tickets, so there's not as much potential for growth."

Though Silver is trying to grow the brand around the globe, visiting Beijing and Taipei in August for example, it is the UK that will be the focus. "London is the business capital of Europe," he says. "Ultimately, we want to plant a flag in Europe."

By 2012, the NBA aims to have regular season games in Britain—more important ones than cosy friendlies. The details are under discussion, but it seems at least one team could be based in London for a few games. Alternatively, several teams might come over for a series of match-ups. "In many ways, if an East Coast team comes to London, it's not that different to flying over to play on the West Coast," argues Silver, though he notes the jet lag.

This would be the prelude to a European league—some time in the next decade. In news that will delight British fans, he reveals that big-name stars from the US game would be drafted into this European division.

Silver's plans to raise basketball's profile in Britain received a boost last week when it emerged separately that a fully professional league, founded by former Lehman Brothers banker Ron Scott and businessman Ken Olisa, will be set up in 2010. This league is in talks with football teams to use their brands, so that there is an inbuilt fan base. Silver is also trying to tie-up with football teams, and NBA representatives have recently met with Arsenal and Chelsea.

It is not the brands that Silver is after, but the methods the clubs use to contact fans. "We're jealous of the deeply rooted nature of [European football's] fan base," he says. "Our marketing people are looking at the football clubs' sophisticated marketing databases."

But he is not impressed with football's transfer system, saying the US's alternative salary cap structure, which sees players take 57 cents of every dollar the NBA receives, is "critical to any sports league". Silver tries to be cautious in criticising football, but goes on: "Enormous amounts of money change hands. When I read reports of owners selling players because of an owner's personal debts, then that's not a recipe for long-term success."

Not that the US system is flawless. He concedes the league pays players too large a percentage. In two years, the NBA will seek a "more equitable distribution" of revenue.

Silver does not have to detail NBA profit as it is privately owned, with the 30 teams each having an equal share. The New York-based company has not considered going public during his 17 years there, as this would bring shareholder pressure to deliver short-term financial successes. Instead, the NBA can introduce basketball to new markets and reap financial rewards maybe 20 years on, when youngsters choose the sport over traditional pastimes.

"Take England: there's football and cricket and we're not going to be surpassing them any time soon," says Silver. "It's difficult to convert an adult. This is a multi-generational strategy."

One thing Silver won't reveal is which NBA team he supports. "I'm not allowed to tell you," he grins. Again, though, he drops his guard. "I grew up in New York as a fan of the Knicks." The careful lawyer soon backtracks: "I enjoy all of our teams." But it is clear that the teams he is most looking forward to cheering are those yet to be formed in a future European league.

The sport and its players: Rivalry, renaissance, and God on the court

Although the NBA was founded in 1946, by its own admission it didn't come into its own until the 1979-80 season, with the emergence of one of the great sporting rivalries.

That year, Larry Bird and "Magic" Johnson joined the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers respectively. The duo helped improve the fortunes of the teams, each of which won more than 60 games that season. To put this into perspective, the Celtics had a 29-53 losing record the previous year.

In the 1996-97 season, to coincide with its 50th birthday, the NBA produced a list of the 50 greatest players; Bird and Johnson were joined on the list by Michael Jordan—widely regarded as the sport's best ever player. After Jordan scored 63 points for the Chicago Bulls against the Celtics in his second season, Bird said he was "God disguised as Michael Jordan".

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