The NBA’s Full-Court Press on Soccer

Betting on its big fan base in China, the league wants to beat soccer

The Houston Rockets and the Indiana Pacers during the NBA Global Games Series in Manila, Philippines, on Oct. 10, 2013.

Photographer: Mike Young/Getty Images

The National Basketball Association All-Star Game in New York on Feb. 15 began with a jump ball between Pau Gasol of the Chicago Bulls and Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies. More than 7 million TV viewers in the U.S. watched el salto between the two brothers from Barcelona. It was the first time that two Europeans made the starting lineups for the NBA’s midseason exhibition. If league officials have their way it won’t be the last, as the NBA pursues a global campaign to overtake soccer as the world’s most popular sport. “Our goal is to be the No. 1 sport in the world,” says Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum. “It’s not in the immediate future, but it’s attainable.”

That’s why the NBA put on a full-court press in New York to wow the foreign media and fans during All-Star weekend. On the Friday before the big game, the league hosted a “Rising Stars Challenge” game with the best young NBA players from around the world pitted against the best from the U.S. Off the court, the NBA handed out credentials to a record 534 members of the international media, more than double last year’s All-Star total in New Orleans.

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On Thursday afternoon, Tatum glad-handed a group of reporters from Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Korea, Australia, and India in a 19th-floor conference room at the league’s headquarters in Manhattan. “How special is that?” he said of the Gasol brothers, who were, he noted, just two of 101 foreign-born players from 37 countries on NBA rosters. Four floors below, Benjamin Morel, the league’s managing director for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, spoke to another roomful of reporters, while on the 14th floor, Philippe Moggio, senior vice president for Latin America, fielded questions in English and Spanish. The message was the same on every floor: “We need to put the ball in the hands of people so that they start bouncing it,” said Morel, “rather than kicking it.”

That will be an uphill battle. Soccer is universally acknowledged as the world’s No. 1 sport, with almost half the globe’s population tuning in for part of the FIFA World Cup every four years. Even stateside, in a 2014 survey by Harris Poll the NBA sat fifth, after the National Football League, Major League Baseball, college football, and auto racing among sports ranked as favorites by adult fans.

“I have enormous respect for the NBA,” says Neal Pilson, former head of CBS Sports and president of Pilson Communications. “But it’s going to be very difficult for them to supplant European football, which is as ingrained in many of the international markets as the NFL is here.” The more likely scenario, Pilson says, is that basketball wins the international race among American sports.

Basketball has at least an outside shot because it rules China and its population of 1.4 billion. The NBA has been aggressively cultivating fans across the mainland since 1979, when the Washington Bullets played the league’s first exhibition games in Beijing and Shanghai. Today, 300 million people in China play basketball, according to the Chinese Basketball Association, which is almost the entire population of the U.S. About 600 million people watched at least a minute of an NBA game on state-run broadcaster CCTV last year, with an average of about 5 million viewers per game. In January the league sold a five-year package of digital video rights to Chinese Internet provider Tencent Holdings for $700 million.

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“They’re already getting about a million live viewers per game on their platform,” says NBA China Chief Executive Officer David Shoemaker, who spent All-Star weekend shepherding 150 executives from the league’s commercial partners in China, including CCTV, Tencent, and Anta Sports Products. “We think we can multiply that by a lot.”

Revenue from China, now in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the league, has grown more than 10 percent a year. “It’s just a matter of time,” says Tatum, “before our revenues outside the U.S. outpace our revenues inside.”

The bottom line: About 300 million Chinese play basketball. The NBA hopes to use that fan base to someday eclipse soccer’s popularity.

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