October 31, 2011

How to bring an NBA game to India

Blah blah blah there's a lockout going on blah blah No telling when the NBA will return blah blah this is all very pointless blah blah blah

Just wanted to get the lockout-induced existential crisis out of my system.

During my summer of lockout discontent of being deprived of America's (and the world's) finest basketball league, two other events occurred in different parts of the world. These events were unrelated, but together, they can combine to make a dream come true for an Indian NBA fan: bringing an NBA pre-season game to India, and if the lockout doesn't allow that, bringing NBA stars to play an exhibition game here, much like they have been planning for other countries in their All Star World Tour.

Event 1: On July 23-24, 2011, some of the NBA's finest players, including Kobe Bryant, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul, were invited to play an exhibition game in Philippines against the Philippines 'Smart Gilas' national team and against the all stars of the Filipino league. Because the NBA was in lockout, Kobe, Rose etc were there not representing the league but were instead on hire by a wealthy Filipino Manuel V. Pangilinan. I learnt most of the best information about this historic event in the basketball-crazed country from a fantastic Grantland article by Rafe Bartholomew.

Event 2: This took place much closer, in time and in space, to us Indians. Having prepared our first ever international Grand Prix racing circuit - the Buddh International Circuit in Noida - the first ever F1 race, the Indian Grand Prix during the weekend of October 28-30, 2011. Somehow, the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India (FMSCI), and a private company called the Jaypee Group, were able to host perhaps the most technologically-advanced sport in the world in India and host it pretty damn smoothly.

So this is what I started thinking. If a country like the Philippines (similar to India in many ways) can bring in NBA stars, and India can bring in a major sporting event like an F1 event (similar to an NBA event in several ways), why can't someone combine the two and bring an NBA event to India?

First, let's talk about how these events took place: The Philippines All Star game was made possible because of the vision of one very rich Filipino businessman, Manuel V. Pangilinan, who because of his cool initials is also known as MVP. He is a telecommunications mogul in the Philippines, and more important for our story, a HUGE basketball fan. The Philippines, in general, are filled with a basketball craze like no other, perhaps matched by craze us Indians have for cricket.

So what does MVP do? He brings together nine NBA players free from NBA obligations to his country, and pays them around $400,000 dollars each for the weekend (speculative sum, the exact amount was not revealed). The infrastructure in the country's capital of Manila wasn't going to be much of an issue because of the country's history with the game. MVP's trump card in this event was the ticket price: the Grantland story I mentioned above states: To ensure a packed house, the organizers deliberately kept ticket prices low. Courtside seats were sold at the box office for $129 and general admission tickets for about $8.. Patty Scott, CEO of an American company that worked with MVP in organising this event, said: "This wasn't about making money. It was about MVP's legacy and giving Filipinos a basketball event they've always dreamed of."

Now, NBA players have been to play exhibitions in many countries before, why is this Philippines parallel important? This is because the Philippines is a country much like India in the mixture of growth and chaos, in affluence and in poverty, in ambition and in corruption. So, it is a country where private organisations can achieve what the less organised/corrupt government-run things may not be able to.

Sound familiar? India is the goddamn KING of private-based success. Our software, outsourcing, telecommunications, education, infrastructure, and so many other fields have mostly thrived despite the government, not because of it. When the government tried their best to give a recent world-class sporting event, they gave us the Commonwealth Games. When a bunch of non-government organisations tried to do it, they organised the near-flawless Indian Grand Prix.

Which brings us to our second event. If the Philippines had MVP making basketball dreams come true, India had Jaiprakash Gaur (Chairman of Jaypee Group), Vicky Chandok (President of the Federation of Motor Sports Clubs of India - FMSCI), Vijay Mallya (Chairman FSMCI, owner of India's 1st F1 team Force India, and the man behind everything that Kingfisher does - from beer to airlines to hot women). The Jaypee Group invested the money in building the track and hosting the Grand Prix. The FMSCI brought the organisational expertise. Both had the clout to attract their rich sponsor friends.

Learning from the Commonwealth Games fiasco, the F1 organisers kept the media at bay until the last moment, and thus, didn't allow them to critisize the negative points before celebrating the positives. Its not like there weren't glitches suffered. Some complained of dust, some laughed at the stray dog who wandered on the track during an official practice session. But in the country of the CommonWealth Games, in the state of Mayawati, we had a track completed in time, matching all the safety conditions and afterwards, garnered high praise from the world's best drivers.

F1, like the NBA, has been reaching out into Asia: both sporting bodies have realised the profits that Asia's great population and growing spending power can bring. F1 Racing is a rich man's sport, with rich drivers, rich manufactures, rich sponsors, and rich fans. NBA Basketball rich, too: rich players, rich owners, rich sponsors, but what separates the two is the fans - since basketball can be played anywhere with any type of arrangement, unlike the expensive racing world, anyone can be a basketball fan.

Watching the two sports in their arenas, though, is a slightly pricier affair. In India, there were about a 95,000 rich F1 fans at the race on Sunday, with basketball being a sport for the common man and all, will we be able to bring in enough people to fill in an arena to watch NBA stars? Or will the organiser in India do what MVP did in the Philippines: keep the ticket price low to satisfy the common Indian fan. The problem of course is that the common sports fan in the Philippines is likely to be a basketball lover to the core, while the common sports fan in India will recognise Sachin Tendulkar's back before recognising Derrick Rose's face. Unlike MVP, who wanted to satisfy the average Filipino to build his legacy, it may seem fruitless to an Indian organiser to do the same in India if there just aren't that many people craving for the sport. Unless, of course, the organiser is completely nuts about basketball and also really, really, very, extremely, crazy rich.

Even though basketball is a far more accessible sport than motor-racing, F1 does have a head start to the NBA in India The F1 has an Indian connection: Indian racers Narain Karthickeyen and Karun Chandhok participate amongst the top drivers in the world, and India has its own F1 team - Force India - owned by Vijay Mallya. Maybe NBA in India will be a better idea if an Indian player makes it to the NBA first, and/or an Indian owns an NBA team. The second part of this is already kind of true: look up Vivek Ranadivé, the Indian part-owner of the Golden State Warriors.

Overall, both the F1 in India and the NBA stars in The Philippines proved that world class, glamorous, and potentially-complicated events can be held in developing countries as long as we find the correct mixture of a lot of passion and a lot of money. India has people passionate about basketball and yes, we now have a lot of rich people off private empires. All that is left to do is find someone with the right combination of the two.

Now of course, the NBA will not always be in lockout, so the MVP-model in Philippines may not be necessarily carbon-copied. What I hope for is a pre-season/exhibition game, between any two NBA teams in India (I'd prefer Knicks-Heat, but any two would do, really... Because of the Ranadivé connection, a Warriors game makes sense.) NBA preseason games have already been held in different parts of Asia over the last few years, including China, Japan, and Taiwan. If Bernie Ecclestone, the President/CEO of F1 Management, could be romanced by the idea of the opening his company further in the NBA market, then NBA Commissioner David Stern should think about it too. After all, NBA promotion has already been running at full speed for the last few years in India: tying up with a private Indian organiser to build an arena that is satisfactory to NBA needs, and then keeping the costs relatively low for the Indian fans (Is that really possible though?) will be the key to fulfilling the dream of our first NBA exhibition game here.

Yes, I'm a big NBA fan in India, who dreams of seeing this happen because of my love for the game. But there is one other reason. When the Indian F1 race on Sunday was won by Germany's Sebastian Vettel, he was handed the trophy by none other than Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and the world's most feared woman, Mayawati. Trust me, I would give at least half a limb to see the great Behenji and Kobe Bryant in the same frame.

Please make this dream come true. If you're a basketball crazy Indian multi-millionaire, you need to contact me. Now.

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