Could Basketball Ever Become the Most Popular Sport in the World?

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Could Basketball Ever Become the Most Popular Sport in the World?
Alvaro Barrientos/Associated Press

Much has changed on the global basketball scene since the original Dream Team stormed its way to Olympic gold some 22 years ago.

The sport is now a fixture in most (if not all) of the countries on Earth. Last season, the NBA boasted 92 international players hailing from 39 different countries and should feature more on both counts this fall. Spain, from which five of those aforementioned 92 came, is once again the epicenter of basketball's biggest event of the summer: the newly rebranded FIBA World Cup of Basketball.

As far as basketball has come in recent decades, it still has a long way to go to catch up to the world's pre-eminent sport: soccer. While FIFA's World Cup is a global phenomenon filled with excitement and drama, with every match beamed into homes across the Seven Seas, FIBA's version has yet to garner such broadcast clout (only Team USA games have been broadcast on television domestically thus far). 

While FIBA World Cup may never enjoy the same worldwide cachet as the FIFA World Cup, there are a few signs that basketball is closing the gap on soccer's stronghold as the world's most popular sport. 

Sizing Up the Competition 

Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

To be sure, basketball has got its work cut out for it. By just about any measure of popularity—from revenue to viewership to social media—soccer's lead would seem nigh on insurmountable.

According to the consulting firm A.T. Kearney, basketball, as represented by the NBA, constituted about 6 percent of the global sports market in terms of revenue generated in 2009, at 2.7 billion Euros. Soccer, on the other hand, swallowed a staggering 43 percent of the market, with a take of 19.5 billion Euros.

Much has changed in the last five years, though, particularly for basketball.

According to collective bargaining guru Larry Coon, the NBA's latest increase in its salary cap points to a projected basketball-related income (BRI) of $4.75 billion for the league in 2014-15. That number could jump considerably in the years to come, thanks in large part to the flood of revenue that's expected to flow from the NBA's upcoming renewal of its national television pacts.

For the moment, then, that leaves the NBA slightly behind the English Premier League in total revenue. According to BBC News' Bill Wilson, the EPL broke the £3 billion mark—which translates to right around $5 billion—for the first time ever in 2013-14.

Unlike the NBA in basketball, the EPL isn't the only billion-dollar conglomeration in the soccer world. According to Deloitte, Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A, France's Ligue 1, Brazil's Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A and the Russian Premier League all checked in above $1 billion in revenue as of 2012-13.

And that's not including the 22 other soccer leagues around the world—including MLS and the second-division groups in England, Spain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan—that rake in more money than does basketball's second-biggest association, Spain's Liga ACB, which brought in just under 107 million Euros (i.e., a shade over $140 million) in 2011-12, per Spanish outlet AS.com's Alfredo Matilla and Juan Jimenez (via Wikipedia).

The World's Billion-Dollar Sports Leagues
League Sport Revenue
NFL American football $9 billion
MLB baseball $8 billion
English Premier League soccer $5 billion
NBA basketball $4.75 billion
NHL hockey $3.7 billion
Bundesliga soccer $2.59 billion
La Liga soccer $2.46 billion
Serie A soccer $2.2 billion
Ligue 1 soccer $1.68 billion
Nippon Professional Baseball baseball $1.27 billion
Campeonato Brasileiro Serie A soccer $1.19 billion
Russian Premier League soccer $1.16 billion

Multiple sources

Some of Spain's biggest basketball teams, including Barcelona and Real Madrid, are directly affiliated with their soccer counterparts. The latter, though, easily dwarf the former.

"Clearly, the soccer team is the dominant one," said Bill Duffy, one of the most prominent agents in basketball. "It’s the most heavily financed. It has the highest sponsorship. They’re much more lucrative, and there’s a much bigger commitment. Basketball is there, but it’s clearly second fiddle, and it’s not even close."

To its credit, the NBA has a significant leg up on most other major sports leagues in terms of star power. None of the other North American fixtures can boast a roster of global icons that so much as sniffs the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant, to name but a few.

But on that scale, even the NBA's biggest names can't quite hold a candle to their soccer counterparts. According to Fan Page List, the five most-followed athletes on social media are all international soccer stars. Cristiano Ronaldo, who leads them all with more than 127 million followers between Facebook and Twitter, has a bigger following than Bryant, James, Durant and Michael Jordan combined.

Whichever way you slice it, soccer still owns basketball in just about any battle over humanity's most popular sport.

Room for Growth 

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That's not to say basketball doesn't have plenty going for it or that it won't be able to loosen soccer's grip over the global sports scene in the years and decades to come.

For one, basketball's Rolodex of internationally marketable stars is already immense and grows stronger with each passing year. The absences of James, Durant, Bryant, Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, Carmelo Anthony and a host of other household names from the FIBA World Cup has merely allowed up-and-comers like Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and James Harden to seize the spotlight—and for Derrick Rose to begin to reclaim his rightful share.

Many of the game's biggest names are already known quantities, if not bona fide rock stars, outside of the U.S. Some, like James and Bryant, regularly visit China, the world's biggest basketball bastion beyond America's borders. According to The New York Times' Ben Sin, the NBA is nothing short of a force to be reckoned with in the world's most populous nation:

Now, the N.B.A. is one of the most popular brands in China, and the only American sports league with a significant following throughout Asia. The league has a combined 70 million followers on Sina Weibo and Tencent’s microblog platforms, compared with fewer than 400,000 followers for the National Football League.

Superstars like Bryant have played a pivotal part in basketball's worldwide expansion. That, in turn, has been the product of a sustained marketing effort overseas by the sport's most important power players.

The NBA, in particular, has taken up arms in this cause at all levels. Its Basketball Without Borders initiative has brought players, coaches and other team and league officials to cities all over the world to teach the game and touch the lives of those who want to play it.

The league has been sending its teams overseas since 1978, when the champion Washington Bullets lost to longtime Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. It wasn't until 2013, though, that the Association formalized its foreign exhibitions under the banner of the NBA Global Games. The upcoming preseason will feature contests in Berlin, Istanbul, Rio de Janeiro, Shanghai and Beijing, with regular-season games to be played in Mexico City and London thereafter.

These games aren't entirely unlike the summer friendlies that Europe's biggest soccer clubs play in Africa, Asia and North America every year. The biggest difference is in the fervor generated, which is to be expected, given soccer's continued primacy on the world stage.

The NBA and FIBA are not alone in their attempts to extend basketball's footprint abroad. The sports apparel industry as a whole, and Nike and Adidas in particular, has a significant stake in seeing hoops become a bigger athletic habit across the map.

"The shoe companies rely heavily on NBA stars to drive their basketball business," said Marc Isenberg, the author of Money Players: A Guide to Succeed in Sports, Business & Life for Current and Future Pro Athletes. Hence, those stars have long been and continue to be leveraged heavily by Nike, Adidas and the like to grow the game abroad, in large part to sell sneakers.

Whatever the impetus for its spread, basketball has proved to be nothing if not contagious as an activity. "Basketball’s basketball. It knows no limits or borders," said Mike Peck, who most recently spent two years as the head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers' D-League affiliate. "That’s the beauty of the sport."

It's already caught on in a big way throughout Asia and Oceania, with strong presences in China and Australia and a burgeoning initiative in India. None of those countries, though, can compete with the per-capita basketball fervor of the Philippines.

"Any neighborhood you go to, there’s always a hoop on the street," said Leo Balayon, an associate head coach at Bethesda University in Los Angeles. Balayon grew up in the Philippines before playing and coaching basketball around the world, with stops in China and Australia along the way.

"When you talk on a non-personal level, it’s usually either politics or basketball," Balayon added. "It’s everything in the Philippines."

It helps that the game has been in the Philippines for over a century. Then again, the YMCA did what it could to spread basketball all over the globe in the late 1800s, with exhibitions in France, Japan, India, China and what was then known as Persia.

The game was, has been and continues to be a solid fit in Canada, the birthplace of basketball's progenitor, Dr. James Naismith. As is the case with soccer in so many countries, hockey holds a strong sway over the sports scene north of the border, but basketball has made significant inroads over the last two decades or so.

Vince Carter's meteoric rise to slam-dunk stardom with the Toronto Raptors touched off a grassroots revolution across Canada whose fruits (i.e., Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas, Tyler Ennis, Kelly Olynyk) are just now being brought to bear in the NBA.

"I think when [the Toronto Raptors] came in, we had an NBA team to watch every night," Stauskas told Yahoo Sports' Dan Wetzel. "I used to watch every game growing up. And I went to some games. Having the Raptors around was definitely a positive."

Australia, too, is on the cusp of its own "golden generation." Dante Exum figures to lead and should soon be followed by the likes of Ben Simmons, Jonah Bolden and Thon Maker.

And it's not as though basketball has been blacked out entirely in soccer's most devoted strongholds, particularly in Europe. Spain, Germany, Greece and Italy are among those that are home to solid domestic basketball leagues on the continent.

The best club teams on the continentincluding Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Maccabi Tel Aviv (i.e., Cavs coach David Blatt's old haunt) and Olympiacosregularly participate in the annual Euroleague. "I think that many of those teams could compete in the NBA," said Graham Boone, the director of basketball operations at Tandem Sports and Entertainment.

The Grassroots of the Game 

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That may be so, but competing for the attention that their soccer counterparts soak up is another story. Any attempt by basketball to loosen soccer's sports hegemony would require a long-range approach, one that must begin at the grassroots level and could take generations to truly blossom.

The powers that be in the basketball world have been hard at work for some time developing the game's infrastructure overseas, though there's still plenty to be done. Even in Australia, an affluent country that also happens to be a burgeoning hoops hotbed, quality courts are few and far between.

"When you’re in the States, you’ll find a nice high school gym pretty much anywhere. [Australia] doesn’t have that," said David Nurse, a professional shooting coach who's played and run clinics all over the world. "The best gym that they had in the city of Adelaide, where I was playing, was equivalent to an average high school gym, and that was for a professional team down there."

Nurse also noted that the quality of coaching in other parts of the world isn't exactly up to snuffeven in China, where the NBA has had offices since 1990. "There’s a lot of talent over there," Nurse said, "but they’re just brought down by their coaches, and their skills are never developed at a high level like you see in the states."

Without the proper resources available, much of that foreign talent is left to lie fallow. The good thing is, according to Peck, who spent three weeks in China with Nike this summer, "there's no shortage of enthusiasm for the game abroad."  

"There’s just not a solid grassroots infrastructure, and I think they’re just scratching the surface on it now," he said of the situation in China. "There’s definitely a level of passion and interest for that."

Another explosion in the game's popularity, then, may well require a more effective and efficient means of tapping into the latent enthusiasm that exists for basketball, in addition to stirring up further fervor.

Part of that comes down to unearthing stars who can serve as tentpoles for basketball in other countries. Former MVPs like Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash have done wonders to drum up interest in the game in Germany and Canada, respectively.

But neither can quite hold a candle to what Yao Ming was able to do in China. "It changed the game completely, single-handedly," said Duffy, who's long represented Yao. "If it weren’t for Yao Ming, basketball would be much lower on the totem pole.

"Typically what happens when you have a star player in a country emerge, like Yao Ming in China in basketball, there’s more eyeballs on it and there’s more people participating."

Added Balayon, who was in China during Yao's heyday with the Houston Rockets: "I saw the rise of basketball in the span of three years."

If Yao's impact on China is any example to go by, basketball could see an international boom in short order amid the right confluence of professional star power and grassroots energy.

American ex-pats have done their part to sew seeds in this regard. Kobe Bryant grew up learning the game in Italy, where his father, former Philadelphia 76ers big man Joe "Jellybean" Bryant, played for four different teams. Tony Parker's father, Tony Sr., played collegiately at Loyola University in Chicago before hopping across the pond, where he competed professionally while raising a family with Dutch model Pamela Firestone.

Fast-forward to today, and we find two international progeny of American basketball products (i.e., Andrew Wiggins and Dante Exum) among the most promising members of the NBA's incoming rookie class. Any success enjoyed by Wiggins and Exum in the years to come would occasion ripple effects on basketball's popularity in their home countries of Canada and Australia, respectively.

The NBA can only hope that another rookie, undrafted center Sim Bhullar, will help to open up what could be a massively important and largely untapped market in India. Bhullar, a Toronto native who went undrafted out of New Mexico State, became the first player of Indian descent to sign an NBA contract when he inked a deal with the Sacramento Kings earlier this summer.

"Most of the people didn’t really know [who I was]," Bhullar said of his most recent visit to India four years ago. "I’m pretty sure that if I go back now, it’ll be the complete opposite."

The NBA certainly hopes so. A strong foothold in India, with a population north of 1.2 billion (and counting), could be the key to basketball so much as approaching soccer on the global stage, along with China and Africa. "Over the next 50 years, the NBA’s going to be as popular in those countries as it is here in America," Duffy added. "I firmly believe that."

That may not be as strong an endorsement as it may seem. Basketball may be the world's second-biggest sport, but in America, the NBA's revenues still lag well behind those of the NFL and MLB and may continue to do so even after the league renews national television contracts.

Meanwhile, soccer is gaining a stronger foothold in the States with each passing day. According to the Boston Herald's Rick Kissell, this year's World Cup final between Argentina and Germany drew more eyeballs (26.5 million) than the highest-rated game of the 2014 NBA Finals (18.0 million).

MLS has certainly benefited from this shift and could eventually find itself going toe-to-toe with America's biggest sports leagues, the NBA included. "I really believe, in the next 10-20 years, you may very well see major soccer clubs here in the U.S., on the level of NFL teams," said Duffy.

As far as developing international stars is concerned, grooming them in the American collegiate system, as Bhullar was, may not be the best bet. Consider, for example, Hakeem Olajuwon, whose success at the University of Houston and in the NBA didn't exactly translate to a basketball explosion in his native Nigeria.

It's somewhat instructive, too, that some of the best foreign-born prospects had to be plucked off soccer fields. That was the case for Joel Embiid, the No. 3 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, in his home country of Cameroon. The same goes for Thon Maker, the 17-year-old Sudanese phenom who didn't start playing basketball seriously until 2010 in Australia.

A Changing of the Guard?

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

By and large, basketball is still scrambling after soccer's proverbial table scraps. Until (or unless) that changes, it's tough to imagine the former catching up to the latter, much less surpassing it in the big picture.

Soccer's status as a pseudo-religious obsession in so many parts of the world is and will be difficult for basketball to contend with, but world football's popularity is drawn from more than just its earlier roots.

At its base, basketball requires more dedicated resources than does soccer. "Having a playable basketball court is much more difficult in other countries than getting a soccer ball and playing in a field," Boone noted.

Moreover, soccer, in addition to its flexibility across playing surfaces, is also more inclusive when it comes to the shapes and sizes of its participants. You don't have to be a behemoth to dominate on the pitch; just ask Lionel Messi (5'7"), Neymar (5'9") and Cristiano Ronaldo (6'1"). 

In some respects, being abnormally tall can actually be a disadvantage in soccer, where speed and coordination easily outstrip height and leaping ability in physical importance.

Will basketball ever overtake soccer as the world's No. 1 sport?

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Demographically speaking, then, there are far more people in the world with the requisite tools to playand, in turn, succeed atsoccer. In basketball, players who are comparable in height to Messi, Neymar and Ronaldo rarely rise to the top, with the likes of Chris Paul and Isaiah Thomas serving as exceptions that prove the rule. The average NBA player may be 6'7", but that doesn't mean people of that stature grow on trees, so to speak.

In short, basketball has a steep hill to climb, and soccer's own continued global growth has practically rendered hoops' ability to scale it a Sisyphean (if not a Herculean) task.

But that doesn't mean basketball is necessarily doomed in any way. More kids are playing it every year. More stars are making their way to North America with each passing season. Domestic leagues will continue to grow in number and strength around the world. And with the game's grassroots efforts in China, India and Africa, the count of humans playing hoops could eventually number in the billions.

At present, though, basketball might have to get comfortable as the world's No. 2 sport, albeit a strong one with tremendous upside.

As NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told Bloomberg News' Scott Soshnick at the recent Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York, "With all due respect to the other U.S.-based sports, there are really two global sports: There's soccer and there's basketball. And we're really just beginning to scratch the surface."

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