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Definitive Plan for Expanding the NBA Abroad

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Definitive Plan for Expanding the NBA Abroad
USA Today

The NBA is once again set to extend its reach beyond the U.S. and Canada. On Wednesday, the San Antonio Spurs and the Minnesota Timberwolves will go toe-to-toe at Mexico City Arena as part of the NBA Global Games Mexico City 2013.

According to the league's press release, this will be the second regular-season game hosted by the Mexican capital and the 147th international contest of any kind staged by the Association since 1978. The Brooklyn Nets' matchup with the Atlanta Hawks at London's O2 Arena in January will be the 148th and will mark the first time the league has staged regular-season games in more than one country outside of its two current North American havens in the same season.

The NBA's ever-expanding international presence should come as little surprise to those who have studied David Stern's nearly 30-year tenure in New York. The outgoing commissioner has long played an integral part in spreading basketball around the globe. He pushed pros to play in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, helped the league make inroads in China and other emerging markets, and, more recently, has entertained altering the start times of some games to better accommodate international viewers.

Last fall, Stern hinted at the possibility of the NBA expanding overseas in a more direct fashion. As he told those gathered at a gathering of global team, league and industry executives last year (per the Associated Press): "I think for us the thing that would make the most sense would be a division in Europe at the time that it comes... I don't see that for another decade at least. Not one team."

Stern revisited the topic in January during an interview on ESPN Radio with Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. When asked if fans might see an NBA team in Europe in 20 years, Stern replied:

I think so. I think multiple NBA international teams. Twenty years from now? For sure. In Europe. No place else. In other places I think you’ll see the NBA name on leagues and other places with marketing and basketball support, but not part of the NBA as we now know it.

Adam Silver, who will succeed Stern as the league's commissioner in February, echoed his boss' sentiments during an interview with Larry Fine of Reuters this past March:

When we do expand, we'd need to expand probably with multiple teams, so that you wouldn't have an orphan team in Europe, but that you'd potentially have a division so those teams could play each other more often and NBA teams presumably traveling in Europe could have more teams to play when they're over there.

David Dow/Getty Images
If the NBA does decide to branch out in a big way, then it'll likely begin in Europe. And for good reason. Europe's collective combination of basketball infrastructure, established clubs, fan interest and distance is more palatable than that of any other outside hoops-crazy region in the world.

Chances are, the league wouldn't look to plant any new flags across the Atlantic, so to speak. The continent is already home to a number of highly regarded teams with recognizable brands and (some) NBA-caliber talent. That group includes Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain, Panathinaikos and Olympiacos in Greece, Fenerbahce Ulker and Besiktas in Turkey, Montepaschi Siena and Virtus Roma in Italy, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel and CSKA Moscow in Russia, to name but a select few.

The NBA could look to partner with a handful of those teams and, as Stern and Silver have suggested, form a European division. Those chosen would first have to pass a stringent evaluation of some sort, with the league taking particular interest in club finances, revenue streams, fan support, brand prestige and team facilities, among other things.

Those chosen would probably already be familiar to a wide swath of NBA players. The league's now-yearly slate of preseason games pitting NBA teams against their international counterparts, stateside and abroad, has helped tremendously in that regard. So, too, has the greater frequency with which American players—who would struggle to stick in the Association and/or would rather earn six figures overseas rather than settle for meager salaries in the D-League—now defect to leagues in other countries.

Not to mention what happened during the 2011 lockout, when some stars either passed the time by playing in other countries (Deron Williams in Turkey) or seriously considered doing so (Kobe Bryant in Italy).

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images
Travel would still be an issue, especially for West Coast teams where direct flights to London can take anywhere from 10 to 14 hours, depending on origin and weather conditions.

In all likelihood, the NBA would find clever ways to cut down on travel in those situations. For instance, they could piggyback road trips through Europe off of East Coast swings, though such lengthy journeys away from home might have to come with some other perks (i.e. more rest days).

Then again, if eastward expansion isn't truly on the NBA's agenda for another decade or so, it's entirely possible that most (if not all) of these travel-related concerns will be rendered moot by faster planes and other emergent means of conveyance.

The logistics that come with such work-related trips (permits and whatnot) would make for many a headache among teams' travel coordinators, though such agreements are hardly without precedent in the wide world of sports. Just ask football clubs traveling into and out of the Schengen states in Europe.

Interestingly enough, the NBA may be most worried about the quality of arenas in Europe. After last year's meeting between the New York Knicks and Detroit Pistons in London, Silver suggested that only three other cities across the continent—Paris, Berlin and Istanbul—were home to suitable facilities.

That's not to say the situation won't change, perhaps even dramatically so, over the next decade or two. Assuming the world economy picks up again at some point, there will be money available for construction and renovation.

And—if the NBA does, indeed, intend to expand into Europe—interest in doing so.

Filling those European basketball palaces, both the ones already in existence and those yet to be built, is another story entirely. Attendance at games within the Liga ACB, Spain's top domestic league and arguably the best basketball conglomerate outside of the NBA, pales in comparison to the figures seen stateside. According to the league's own figures, the average ACB fixture drew just over 6,200 fans, with a high of around 14,400 to see Laboral Kutxa take on Uxue Bilbao Basket at Fernando Buesa Arena (capacity: 15,504).

Compare that to the NBA, where the average game is attended by upward of 17,000 fans, with the Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks regularly drawing over 20,000 a night.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
The disparity in the numbers probably has as much to do with the size, scope and quality of the arenas as it does with actual fan engagement. As is the case in the states, basketball is far from the biggest or most popular sport in Europe. Soccer is the order of the day across the pond.

Some folks at NBA headquarters in New York may subscribe to the famous mantra from Field of Dreams, though even the pithiest of pop-culture quips isn't likely to move the projections—or the disciplined business minds who adhere to them.

As such, if the NBA is going to become an intercontinental collection of clubs, it'll have to continue its ongoing efforts to grow the profile of the game and the league overseas, first and foremost. That means more exhibitions with NBA teams traveling to take on other domestic clubs on their home turf, more regular-season tilts staged on foreign soil, and the continued influx of non-American talent to drive grassroots interest in the game in other locales.

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These things will take time and persistent effort to bear fruits tangible enough to convince the NBA that fashioning a European division is a sound business decision. Fanbases and state-of-the-art facilities aren't built overnight.

But if there's any American sports league that has the patience, the foresight and the experience to make such a bold move, it's the NBA. Twenty years ago, foreign-born players were a rarity in the Association, with only four international prospects selected in the 1993 NBA draft. This year's draft saw 13 international players taken, including seven in the first round.

And the league saw a record-breaking 92 international players from 39 different countries and territories on opening-night rosters.

Clearly, basketball's global footprint is growing by the year, thanks in large part to the NBA's open-ended efforts to bring the game to every corner of the world. Slowly but surely, the sport's presence overseas will be such that it'll make sense for the NBA to get involved in Europe (and elsewhere) in a more hands-on capacity. 

But that leap is still years, if not decades, from becoming a feasible reality, as the league's own 20-year "timetable" would indicate. For now, then, hoops heads hoping for some international flavor within the confines of the NBA will have to settle for the occasional clash in a foreign arena.

Like, say, Spurs-T'Wolves in Mexico City.

 

I'm always bringing the international flavor to Twitter.


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