February 9, 2015

International Basketball Association: Will Adam Silver's promise hold true for the NBA's global expansion?

Nearly a month ago in London, on the eve of the NBA's now-annual 'Global Games' regular season matchup - featuring the Milwaukee Bucks and the New York Knicks this year - NBA Commissioner Adam Silver made an eyebrow-raising statement to the English media. With an eye on the future of global sports leagues, Silver said that he wants to launch four European franchises, adding that, "It is our manifest destiny to expand."

Between the time that David Stern - Silver's predecessor - took over the helm of the NBA in the early 80s till Silver succeeded him last year, the NBA's global face has changed drastically. The league has become one of the most profitable and lucrative worldwide and its biggest stars have brand name recognition across all the continents. Over the past decade, the NBA Global has pushed the league into further reaches, bringing NBA teams and stars closer to international fans than ever before.

Now, on the week of the NBA All Star Weekend where two Spaniards (Pau and Marc Gasol) will be the game's starters, the Rising Stars Challenge will feature a USA vs. World game, international players will take part in the weekend's several smaller events, and Bollywood star Abhishek Bachchan will become the first Indian to play in the All Star Celebrity Game, the question of this 'manifest destiny to expand' is sure to be posed ahead of Commissioner Silver again. In London, Silver spoke about expanding the game to Europe, but eventually, the Asian markets like China, Philippines, and potentially India will also shape the changing international nature of one of the world's fastest-growing leagues.

During the Global Games in London, Silver had admitted that the NBA had fallen behind in expansion schedule to the NFL, who have plans to start a franchise in England. "It will be easier logistically for them to pull it off," said Silver, "It would be difficult for us to have one team in Europe. We’d have to put both feet down. That would mean having four franchises in Europe."

Via the Guardian

He said that the arena infrastructure was improving across Europe with US-style arenas in place or under construction in England, Germany, France and Spain.
"We’re not there yet. I know that as much growth as we’ve seen, we have a long way to go before we can sustain four franchises in Europe,” said Silver, who has worked at the NBA since 1992. “On the other hand, I believe it’s our manifest destiny to expand."

Because of the talent and infrastructure in many European countries (excluding England, who are relative minnows in basketball), the continent is an obvious next shore if the NBA is to expand its borders across North America. It Silver's words are to hold true, the European expansion may still be up to a decade away. But is a sports league separated by the great distances of the Atlantic Ocean truly feasible, no matter how efficient and comfortable modern day travel may get? The time zone differences could add another caveat to the plans. Of course, there have been arguments that the NBA and Silver are getting ahead of themselves here, especially when there are more suitable markets in North America that deserve and are more primed to host an NBA team.

Still, the winds of change - and the future - are inevitable: the reality of the future is a smaller, flatter world, where business - including the business of playing sports - will become more global.

While the NBA's first steps as explorers of an expanding league seem to be in Europe, it is China and India - if the two massive populations are able to iron out their creases - that might end up being the most profitable future endeavours. In present day India, infrastructure, mismanagement, and organizational problems are clear red flags against any NBA dreams. Additionally, India has to first show that they can launch and handle our own basketball league before the NBA can even glance in this direction. Still, we are talking of decades into the future now, and Silver's comments about Europe may yet prove to be a foreshadow of the eventual reality by the middle of the 21st century.

The NBA isn't expanding anywhere outside of North America anytime soon, but - whether or not it is still under Adam Silver's leadership - the expansion will eventually happen one day. And by then, we'll have an international basketball association for a truly international sport.

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