The NBA has been successfully broadening its international appeal for years now, but the amount of room for continued growth is staggering.
The league's Global Games 2013 initiative shows how far back the NBA's international ties extend but also provides a look ahead to some ambitious plans for the future. Most notably, there are a pair of regular-season contests scheduled to be played overseas this year.
Know this: Those two games represent the future of the NBA.
We've been heading in this direction for a while. Commissioner David Stern predicted in 2010 that there'd be a European NBA division within a decade, and the league has opened up international offices from Moscow to Mumbai.
During the 2013-14 preseason alone, eight teams will compete internationally. Here's a breakdown of the contests that have taken place so far:
|Oct. 5||Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Fenerbahce Ulker||Istanbul, Turkey|
|Oct. 6||Philadelphia 76ers vs. Bilbao Basket||Bilbao, Spain|
|Oct. 8||Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Philadelphia 76ers||Manchester, England|
|Oct. 10||Houston Rockets vs. Indiana Pacers||Manila, Philippines|
Most recently, the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers took the floor in Manila, playing in front of an audience that Stern views as instrumental in the league's growth in Southeast Asia.
In his last months as Commissioner, David Stern has NBA constantly thinking global.
Calling the Philippines "a very important part of our Southeast Asia strategy," NBA Commissioner David Stern described the country as "a pole in our Southeast Asian tent," due to the "knowledgeable and robust fan base," Thursday at the MOA Arena, in a press conference prior to the preseason game between the Indiana Pacers and the Houston Rockets.
Fans in attendance got what can only be described as a triple dose of international flavor, as Chandler Parsons (an American) pulled off a Eurostep in Asia:
He covered three continents in one play.
There are still four more international preseason games on the schedule: two in China, one in Taiwan and another in Brazil.
In total, the eight overseas contests represent a modest, single-game increase over the seven that the NBA played during the 2012-13 preseason. But it's clear that the league has a major incentive to continue expanding its global reach.
According to Alicia Jessop of Forbes, NBA Senior Vice President of Global Marketing Emilio Collins said last year:
International games have a long history in our global growth. It’s the one time throughout the year when our international fans have the opportunity to experience live, authentic NBA games. When we go into international markets and come out of having our games there, we see a spike in our metrics in that market, whether it be TV ratings or marketing partnerships.
The NBA is a business first, and businesses are always looking to expand. As Collins pointed out a year ago, there's an awful lot of money just sitting out there for the NBA to snatch up if it's willing to extend its arms overseas.
Specifically, what Collins said about the correlation between live games and sudden jumps in popularity makes perfect sense. When international fans finally get to see the players they typically only watch on television, it creates a stronger connection and a tendency to stay invested in the NBA product.
The Logistics of Regular-Season Games Abroad
So, if the NBA derives such a pronounced benefit from playing games overseas, the next logical step is to increase the number of international contests on the schedule.
But logistically, how is that going to work?
The travel alone would be brutal.
A flight from New York to Barcelona takes at least seven hours, and if teams are expected to head to China, they'll be looking at flight times nearly twice as long. Getting from Portland to Miami takes right around six hours, so even if the NBA limits its international schedule to only the shortest possible trips, those journeys will still be longer than the most arduous domestic ones.
Players, coaches and team executives aren't going to be happy about adding jet lag and backwards sleep patterns to the list of regular-season worries. Just ask the always delightfully sarcastic Andrew Bogut:
Annnnnddd sleep pattern has gone out the window. Safe to say it will only get better going to good old China for 2 games! #roughweekcomingup— Andrew Bogut (@andrewbogut) October 10, 2013
Still, the league is willing to give the concept a limited trial run this year by sending the San Antonio Spurs and Minnesota Timberwolves to Mexico City on Dec. 4. After that, the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets will fly across the pond to do battle in London on Jan. 15.
If those two games go off without a hitch, we could be in for many more in the future.
Why It Can Work
The NBA isn't going to suddenly expand its international schedule to include a dozen games overseas for every team. But the league's not going to abandon the idea, either.
In order to get what it wants—global domination—the NBA is going to have to give something up in return: the 82-game schedule.
Think about it: The travel an international slate of games would require is significant, and if the league retained its current schedule, players would be in for a real nightmare. Not only that, but teams on either coast would have the unfair advantage of significantly reduced flight times. Geography has a minor impact on NBA fatigue as it is, but if the league were to start adding international travel to its regular season, the problem would become even more pronounced.
So the league would have to embrace a shorter season.
Imagine a 66-game campaign with more off-days between contests. The league would naturally balk at the revenue reduction that would come along with slicing 16 games from the schedule, but if it's true that international play results in an immediate spike in popularity and revenue, perhaps that extra income would offset the losses from trimming the schedule.
Players would also get more time to recover from the long flights, which would mitigate travel fatigue and whatever disadvantages come along with it.
Perhaps most importantly, the NBA could expect exponential growth in its popularity and international revenue. If Filipino fans go crazy for a single preseason tilt, how much more of an impact would two or three regular-season games per year make?
The potential to create a real, lasting foothold in countries across the globe has to be tantalizing for NBA executives.
Of course, this proposal isn't without flaws.
The league would have to find a way to get team owners on board. Remember, a shorter season would mean less total revenue from home games, as well as reduced pay for arena employees who make their livings by working 41 regular-season contests.
But if the NBA got a significant revenue bump from its increased international presence, perhaps the league could use some of that money to make the team owners happy.
The finances are sure to be exceptionally complicated, but by featuring a few more games overseas as part of a shorter overall season, it seems like everyone involved could come out ahead.
International markets would get more of the product they love, the NBA could open up new income channels and individual players could grow their precious brands across the globe.
That's a win-win-win situation.