August 6, 2013

One small step for Indian Basketball on cable TV...

On August 2, 2013, India's Men's basketball squad played against Thailand at the Preliminary Round of the 27th FIBA Asia Championship in Manila (Philippines). It was the second game for both teams at the championship, and both were coming off losses. The game tipped off late, at 10:30 PM local time, and at the primetime hour of 8 PM for fans back in India who were checking in on an otherwise fairly regular Thursday night. India, under coach Scott Flemming, came out motivated and blew Thailand out the gates, running away to a 89-65 victory.

For those who have closely followed the course of Indian Basketball in the past years, or even the past decades, there was nothing unusual about this night. India have played in 22 FIBA Asia Championships around the continent in the past, and dozens more if you count the Women's, Junior, and Youth divisions. The national teams have played in hundreds of more games around the world in various other tournaments and competitions. Domestically, Indian basketball players take part in scores of national-level, state-level, district level, or club invitational tournaments annually.

But there was something truly special about that Thursday evening game on the 2nd of August.

When India's Men's Senior National Basketball squad took on Thailand in Manila on that day, it became the first ever Indian basketball game - domestic or international - to be broadcast on cable TV in India. The Neo Prime channel, part of the Nimbus Communications Limited family, bought the rights to broadcast a live feed from FIBA TV of the games from the 2013 FIBA Asia Championship. FIBA has been feeding games live in various tournaments for years, but never before has a cable channel in India taken the risk to show Indian hoops. Since the advent of cable television in the country, channels like ESPN, Star Sports, Ten Sports, and SONY PIX/SIX over the years have shown NBA basketball, NCAA tournaments, or basketball from the European leagues. Indian basketball, including domestic tournaments or rare international matches, were limited only to state-owned Doordarshan and shown on DD Sports. The coverage on DD Sports (as many watchers will attest) is amateurish, the production value cheap, and commentary unreliable, and the chance of a live fourth quarter humdinger getting randomly replaced by last night's Ranji Trophy highlights highly probable.

Since the first game against Thailand, Neo Prime has been showing more of India's games at the tournaments and a few of the other games as well. It is obviously not the most watched sports channel in India, but it is at least another option. It's a small step for Indian hoops, but it may pave the way forward for further mainstream alignment of the sport to the Indian audiences in the future.

Whenever I've posted information about Indian basketball events - domestic or international - the most common question has been by fans has been "Where will it be broadcast?" Fans in the country here about India's best players often - the Vishesh Bhriguvanshis, the Geethu Anna Joses, the Satnam Singh Bhamaras, and the Anitha Pauldurais often - but they rarely get a chance to watch them in action. The result is that Indian basketball fans base most of their knowledge of the game on the NBA, which has been easily available on TV for years and now, on the internet too. News of Indian basketball is only limited to box scores and text recaps and the live performances of our stars has to be left only to our imaginations.

This hurts both long-time hardcore fans and potential new fans of the game. Hardcore fans who truly want to dedicate a career either playing basketball or being connected with the game in another way rarely get to see the workings of the system and the ability of Indian players in action, and thus, find it difficult to find something to aim for in India. They are left with forlorn fantasies of the NBA instead of even taking a look at the level of the game in their own backyards. Most of the people who watch basketball games in India are the participating players themselves, players who attend a tournament become the audience to the other games at the same tournament. To the rest of the world, the tournament passes by unseen. Legendary comebacks, game-winning baskets, heroic individual performances, and emotional victory celebrations have all taken place numerous times year and year on basketball courts around India, or by Indian players in basketball courts around the world, and virtually none of us have been able to watch them.

Secondly, every day, young people turn on the sports channels on TV to find something to watch. They find cricket (a lot of cricket), they find tennis, they find football (mostly from Europe, but fortunately, now from India too), they find hockey, and they find increasing coverage of NBA basketball, too. A slew of other sports which don't earn advertising rupees on cable TV find their way in the darker halls of DD Sports. These include domestic Indian basketball tournaments, for which, the Basketball Federation of India (BFI) actually has to pay the channel to cover them. Outside of those who are actively seeking to find these games, very few other TV watchers in India come across the action on DD. A whole generation of potential new fans are lost year after year. They start supporting the Lakers, Heat, Celtics and the Bulls. They rarely ever get the chance to cheer for India. Many of them aren't even aware that India has a team.

The FIBA Asia Championships are the most important basketball tournaments for India's Men and Women teams, so it is a no-brainer to prioritize them for broadcast. The FIBA feed has been decent, with good commentary and better production value than anything you'll find on Doordarshan. But there is other potentially exciting news ahead: for years, the launch of India's first-ever professional basketball league has been on the horizon. When the league eventually comes into existence, it will not survive without a growing supportive audience, and such as audience will not exist without regular, exciting, and well-programmed cable TV broadcasts. In the past, TV channels have been rightfully hesitant to invest on domestic basketball for the national audience, but if early experiments like the current championship on Neo Prime can be mildly successful, it may help pave the way for more channels to be interested in promoting the game further and supporting any future broadcast plans of the pro league.

Neo Prime's coverage has the potential to slowly (very slowly) start making a difference. From the moment it was announced by BFI that the games from the FIBA Asia Championship will be shown on Neo, a number of fans have been checking in daily to support those in the Philippines proudly sporting 'India' jerseys in action. Our players might not be the world's best or most exciting basketball stars, but they still represent our country several times a year. They need our support and we want to support them.

It's a win-win situation, just as long as the economics of broadcasting these shows can keep the TV channel happy. This is no charity case, and every programming decision is eventually about the bottom line: profits. So hopefully, the more fans tune in to watch the games, the more advertisers will support the broadcast, and in turn, the channels will be more likely to keep showing more games. Basketball audience in India is still quite young, so the process above is going to be a lot tougher than it sounds, but we must keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best ahead.