As the NBA continues to face a backlash in China as a result of Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey's support for the Hong Kong protests last weekend, there are new concerns about the fate of the league’s $4 billion business in the Middle Kingdom. If the worst-case scenario were to come to pass and the NBA were to sever ties with China, where in the world would the league turn for growth?
For nearly a decade the league has had a presence in Africa and just last week launched its first foray into India.
Both countries present opportunity, but sports economist Victor Matheson says the lure of the world’s fifth-largest economy in India is perfect for the NBA. “The growth rate is way bigger than anything we’ve seen in any other major sport,” Matheson told FOX Business. “There’s certainly potential. India’s got 1.2 billion people and not a lot of big domestic leagues, so it’s the sort of place you can get market penetration.”
Still, it is Africa that is getting a fast break from the league. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced the creation of the Basketball Africa League (BAL) in February at the NBA All-Star Game. A collaboration between the NBA and the sport’s global governing body, FIBA, the 12-team league begins play in March. Recreational hoopster and former President Barack Obama will have a role with the new league.
The BAL will be a continent-wide effort that will involve six national champions -- Nigeria, Angola, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Senegal — which will automatically qualify for the competition. The remaining six teams will come through international qualifiers later this year.
The BAL’s host cities will be Cairo (Egypt), Dakar (Senegal), Lagos (Nigeria), Luanda (Angola), Rabat (Morocco) and either Monastir or Tunis (Tunisia). The host city for the first-ever BAL Final Four and BAL Final will be Kigali, Rwanda. Nike and Jordan Brand will be the exclusive outfitter of the new professional league featuring 12 club teams.
The “continental” approach, however, gives Matheson pause. “I don’t have a great grasp on whether you could have a Nigerian be the face of African basketball or whether he can only be the face of Nigerian basketball. I think we see a little bit of that in soccer, that the continent – at least to some extent – embraces all of the successes of the teams and players from continent. I suspect the ethnic and nationality boundaries are enough that you can’t think of Africa as just one place and that, if you’re the NBA, you want a star out of a really big market (within the continent).”
"There is already an unprecedented demand for basketball in India"
In India, where there may be more potential, there also may be more challenges. The NBA had to add seats, video screens fit for an arena, extra lighting and other elements considered standard at the NBA level for the first-ever preseason game in Mumbai’s NSCI Dome.
“I think it's inevitable that there will be state-of-the-art arenas in major cities in India, in part because these are multi-use facilities and live entertainment is increasingly important here as well,” Silver told ESPN in India, “Of course, a great arena can have concerts and other shows. But we do need to see those arenas over time in order to play more games."
In 2017, India's sports sponsorship industry surpassed the $1 billion mark for the first time. The country’s cricket league, the Indian Premier League, was founded in 2008 and has become the most-attended cricket league in the world. It ranked sixth by average attendance among all sports leagues as recently as 2014.
EY in its 2017 report, “Sports in India” declared, “The sports sector in India has witnessed a number of recent developments, which have contributed to its significant growth.”
No one may know that better than Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé. A native of India, he brought his Kings to Mumbai to square off against the Indiana Pacers.
"I have no doubt that these games will serve as an inspiration and catalyst for even more exciting things to come. There is already an unprecedented demand for basketball in India,” Ranadivé told Indian publication ET Sport, “Since my visit to India with Adam Silver five years ago, over 10 million boys and girls have participated in Jr. NBA camps and tickets to this week’s games in my hometown nearly sold out in two hours.”
While the Kings were in Mumbai, the team joined the NBA in a week-long series of grassroots community activities in India, including programming from NBA Cares, Jr. NBA, Her Time to Play and NBA Academy.
But success will have to come from a hometown formula.
“It’s hard to imagine India embracing the NBA or the English Premier League (soccer) until you actually have a star that local people can grab onto,” said sports economist Matheson, “that’s exactly what happened in China.”
It was Yao Ming, a 7-foot superstar in the Chinese Basketball Association, who was selected by the Houston Rockets with the first overall pick in the 2002 NBA draft. He became a superstar in the U.S. leading the Rockets to the NBA Playoffs four times and become a legend in China.
Today, Ming is the head of the Chinese Basketball Association and is not happy with his former team or former league. Commissioner Silver at a press briefing in Japan on his way to China said that he had spoken with Ming and described him as "extremely upset," "extremely unsettled" and "extremely hot."
Where the NBA takes that next is being watched closely.