Thirty-two years ago, the NBA went to China on a goodwill mission to raise the profile of basketball. This year, thanks to the efforts of recently retired NBA commissioner David Stern, the league's revenues in China are expected to approach $200 million with significant growth potential, according to Forbes, a credit to the estimated 300 million people who now play basketball in the country.
Expansion into China's 1.3 billion population? Check.
So what's next globally for the NBA, now under Adam Silver's watch? An NBA spokesperson told Bleacher Report that after China the top initiative is fittingly the world's second-biggest population, with 1.2 billion people.
"International is a huge growth area, and India is a priority market for us," the spokesperson said.
"The NBA is a business machine that wants to have tentacles pretty much around the globe," said agent Bill Duffy, who represents China's biggest basketball star ever, Yao Ming. "So India, with their mass population and their continued resources in commerce and technology, that's certainly a place that the NBA wants to be. Whether they have that play or not, they're going to try to market their brand in India."
While the NBA won't reveal future financial projections based on its growing presence in India, basketball there has already taken off, with 5 million boys and girls now equally playing the sport. The league has documented 120 basketball courts in Mumbai alone.
"While cricket is still the national pastime, basketball is the fastest-growing sport in India (after soccer)," said Sacramento Kings boss Vivek Ranadive, the NBA's first Indian-born majority owner. "Basketball is well on its way to becoming the second-most popular sport in India. Tournaments and teams exist at all age levels. Basketball is inclusive (in India) and doesn’t require a lot of space or equipment. You can play in urban settings as easily as you can in rural communities."
Early expansion and present day
The NBA lit a big fuse in 2008 as host of its first event in India, as part of its Basketball Without Borders program, at the American Embassy School in Delhi. Since then, the league has organized more than 500 grassroots events across 10 Indian cities (Bangalore, Chandigarh, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Kochi, Ludhiana, Mumbai, Pune and Trivandrum). A key factor behind that was the opening of the league's first office in India in 2011, which is located in Mumbai. NBA India now employs six full-time employees, including its managing director, Yannick Colaco.
"Adam, even before becoming commissioner, he has been very involved overseas, and advising and helping and training us through our activities and growth of basketball in India," Colaco said. "The NBA is a global league, and India is a very important market to the NBA. Further international expansion is a huge priority, and we see huge growth potential in India, a country with more than 1 billion people and a growing middle class."
Ranadive also cited the "expanding middle class" and added that basketball in India will continue to gain popularity because of the country's "cultural appetite for sports entertainment and our pop-culture appeal." That has a lot to do with the country's emerging youth market. Fifty percent of the population is under the age of 25, and 25 percent is under the age of 18. Colaco called the rise a "major shift that is happening in the culture," which has led the youth to demand more of a newer form of cricket called Twenty20. Colaco said there's a link between that and the recent evolution of basketball.
"They essentially want fast-paced, attractively packaged and competitive sports played in a short time period, which is like basketball," he said. "T20 is much more on TV and more viewer-friendly than other cricket formats. If you look at how they have gravitated towards T20, the demand from Indian consumers is not dissimilar to that of other sports markets in the world. With basketball among the youth, the growth and participation has been tremendous."
Colaco joked that because the youth in India love the transition style of basketball with a focus on scoring, "they don't like to play defense—only zone." He said most teams—in schools, colleges, YMCAs or on public grounds—run a motion offense that has "little rules and looks for the first available shot." But Colaco said organized offense and man-to-man defense are being stressed more to the youth, with an emphasis on teaching kids starting at eight years old. The average starting age for basketball in India has been 12.
To assist with the instruction, 22 current and former NBA players have been to India since 2006—the first headline name being Kevin Garnett when he visited that year for an Adidas tour. Ex-ballers have included George Gervin, Horace Grant, Ron Harper, Sam Perkins, Peja Stojakovic, Dominique Wilkins and Muggsy Bogues, who arrived in the country in February to work on the Reliance Foundation Jr. NBA program.
The initiative, which launched last October to promote health and fitness to the youth through a comprehensive school-based program, has already taught basketball to 140,000 kids and trained 300 adults in the sport spanning 250 schools. The goal is to eventually reach 1 million kids, as well as 2,000 coaches and physical-education instructors, across India.
There's also NBA Jam, a traveling basketball and music festival with a national three-on-three tournament that will be traveling to 16 cities this year (only four last year). In addition, the NBA's marketing partners in India—Adidas, Coca-Cola, Reebok, SAP and Spalding—have all pitched in on the grassroots level.
Today's All-Stars who have been to India include Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, who both went in 2010 when the Mahindra NBA Challenge, the first-ever community-based basketball league in India, was started. Most recently, Chris Bosh traveled there last year—also when Stern first went to launch an NBA Cares event—after the Miami Heat won the championship.
"They're getting there (with basketball)," Bosh said this week, reflecting on his visit. "Some people recognize you just walking around. It's different, but you see a lot of Americans there. They televised the Finals out there, so some people recognized me.
"They've just moved (basketball) out there. It's going to take a little bit of time because over there, it's more so about education. The kids and adults were like, 'So how do you make time for basketball?' They couldn't fathom education and basketball. I was like, 'Well, you can do both.' But they're like, 'But with studies?' And I'm like, 'How much do you study?' That's the main concept.
"I told them, 'You can do both. One is good therapy for the other. If books aren't going well or if you're frustrated, sometimes you can let off some steam and you can go shoot some shots or something.' It's just a culture thing. They'll get used to it. But it's all about developing talent now, which is easier said than done."
Star search: What's the latest?
In China's case, the NBA had the luxury of banking off of Yao Ming, not only a larger-than-life figure at 7'6" but also the No. 1 draft pick in 2002. Duffy called Yao the "perfect ambassador" for Chinese basketball and the "gateway" for NBA exposure in the country.
"All eyes in China were focused on what's going on here in America, and by virtue of him participating in the NBA, every other player in China got humongous exposure," Duffy said. "All those players who were having success in China can thank him because he provided the gateway and the access, and that goes for the NBA also.
"Most people in China didn't really know what the NBA was until Yao Ming came here. There was Wang Zhizhi and Mengke Bateer before him, but they didn't move the needle like he did. He was the first pick in the draft, perennial All-Star, great player, great humanitarian. He really bridged both countries."
Duffy said the NBA would love to replicate the "Yao Ming phenomenon" in India. While that's not on the horizon at this point, there are two intriguing young players: Sim Bhullar, a 7'5", 355-pound sophomore at New Mexico State, and 18-year-old Satnam Singh Bhamara, a 7'1", 320-pounder from Punjab who has been playing for IMG Academy, based in Bradenton, Fla., since 2010.
Bhamara has received more media attention—ESPN, Sports Illustrated and The New York Times have all profiled him—because of his perceived greater potential and Indian roots. Bhullar and his younger brother, Tanveer, were both born in Canada.
Dan Barto, IMG Academy's head basketball skills trainer who works with Bhamara, said the prodigy recognizes that he's the "poster player" for India. So do many kids back home.
"One of the funny stories is how many inquiries we get from kids over there, saying, 'I used to play against Satnam Singh and I found out more information. I would like to come to the U.S.,'" Barto said. "I would say I get hundreds of e-mails a month."
Barto compares Bhamara to a future Nikola Pekovic, who plays for the Minnesota Timberwolves.
"Everybody knew Pekovic was going to be a high-level player as he went through the system and he got some of the best coaching," Barto said. "What is Satnam's route going to be? I don't know. But he doesn't need to peak at 21. He needs to be taking steps so that he is dominant when he's 24, 27 years, and that's the time that most super bigs really come into their own."
Barto said Bhamara, who's currently being recruited by Ball State, Duquesne, UCF, USF and UTEP, said he passed an important test when he faced Joel Embiid last year.
"That was one of his best games of his career," Barto said. "And at this time last year, no one thought Joel Embiid was going to be as dominant as he was. As Satnam continues to progress, it's those kinds of moments that allow you to calculate the fact that he's been pretty successful."
For now, a big difference between Bhamara and Yao is that the former Houston Rockets center was cultivated on his home soil. Duffy thinks that was a key reason that the following in China was there when Yao joined the NBA. At the time, China had a pro basketball league and an elite development program. India has neither at this point, which indicates significant growth opportunities for the country. However, Barto said Bhamara's experience at IMG Academy is similar to Yao's coming from China.
"I think that being here allows him to kind of be insulated from a lot of (the exposure), because everybody here is telling him the right things—just like Yao Ming was super-insulated when he was first coming out of China through the Chinese development system," Barto said. "China put him in a remote location to really train. This is kind of a remote location.
"We have the facilities and the medical people on staff to help him not over-train. One of the biggest problems with super bigs is that they get over-trained between the ages of 16 and 22, because people are just pushing them so hard to make it, make it, make it, and then their bodies just can't keep up."
Barto said the next 18 months will be critical for Bhamara's trajectory. He'll need to shed more weight—he's already lost 15 pounds since last fall—and continue to work on his agility, mobility, coordination and finishing touch. Bhamara also has the support of Kenny Natt, IMG Academy's director of basketball, who was an assistant coach with the Utah Jazz in the late 1990s and helped Greg Ostertag be effective with limited athleticism.
In addition, for the first time this spring and summer, Bhamara will not return to India to train with the national team. He will participate in AAU basketball—on the IMG Performance team—to get more reps against the best high school players in the country. That's when Barto expects NBA scouts to be on hand to evaluate (until now, they've only gone by game film).
Then later this year, Bhamara will finish out his final season at IMG Academy, looking to improve his stock to land on a powerhouse college team. While he'll be 19 in December, he'll be a fifth-year senior because his only curriculum when he first arrived at IMG Academy was learning English, which he now speaks well.
Whether or not Bhamara or Bhullar turn out to be stars, India will still need its own pro hoops league to earn more respect globally, and likely attract more business. Right now, the Indian national men's team is ranked 61st by FIBA—the women's team is No. 40—and it went 1-7 in last year's FIBA Asia Championship in Manila, Philippines. While Vishesh Bhriguvanshi, Rikin Pethani, Amjyot Singh and Amrit Pal Singh are the top teenagers in India, they all play hoops in obscurity in the American scene. Geethu Anna Jose, on the female side, has gone the furthest, when she had three WNBA tryouts in 2011.
When the IMG Reliance formed a 30-year partnership with the Basketball Federation of India in 2010, there were plans to establish a league. But that hasn't happened yet, and the NBA said there is no update on its progress at this point.
To the locals, that's not good enough. As Karan Madhok, who has worked with the BFI, wrote on Hoopistani earlier this month, "At this point, India’s most talented players are still semi-professionals, working in banks, railways or state government, and taking part in small basketball tournaments either organized by the BFI itself or by local sponsors around the country... Our top players need that extra push, that incentive to break out of their cruising altitudes and aim higher. This is where a league would revolutionize things."
Could a Hollywood basketball version of Million Dollar Arm ever really come to life? Ranadive is confident that things will change over time.
"I believe the merits of basketball speak for itself, but as the country gets more entrenched with the game, you’ll see more and more prospects come through the pipeline," he said. "It happened in China and will happen in India. If we continue to invest, I have no doubt that we’ll see a major star emerge from India."
In many ways, regardless of the Indian talent pool, the NBA's opportunity for bigger expansion in India comes with several main advantages that China didn't have more than a decade ago: television exposure, Ranadive's U.S.-based leadership and social media. The latter especially wasn't around when Yao came over in 2002. Involving NBA India, it's seen a 450 percent increase on Facebook year-to-year and recently a double-digit spike in web traffic and social media engagement, which has all led to a doubling of NBA merchandise sales.
Who knows how much more powerful Yao's reach would've been with tools like Twitter, Instagram and Facebook back then?
"If you go back even further, you could say the same thing about Hakeem Olajuwon for Africa," Duffy said. "Back then, he didn't have the following, there wasn't the digital media, the new media. So as great as Hakeem Olajuwon was, if you have a Hakeem Olajuwon right now, I think you could probably talk about Africa the same way you could talk about India and China—and Africa could be another international player in terms of economics."
Looking ahead, India will add more Internet users than any country over the next three years, which will mean between 330 million and 370 million users. In fact, by next year, the country is projected to have more than 1 billion mobile subscribers, and three out of four Internet users will be mobile-only.
As for TV, Colaco said the NBA is "seeing triple-digit increases" through their partnership with Sony SIX, India's exclusive broadcaster. Last season, Sony SIX showed three games per week. Now that number is 14, which includes a doubleheader every morning, and all of the local NBA programs—including India's own version of NBA Inside Stuff—reach approximately 40 million households. Sony SIX, which sees its strongest demographic between 15 and 24 years old, will air the playoffs and the NBA Finals coming up.
Then there's Ranadive's impact that's packaged in his self-described "Kings NBA 3.0 philosophy." According to a Kings spokesperson, it's defined as "technology, community impact and globalization—one, utilizing technology to give fans a unique experience and point of view (like using Google Glass), and to better connect to seamless transactions (like using bitcoin); two, utilizing the Kings leadership to make a positive impact in the community, both here and abroad; and three, expanding the Kings into a global brand and growing the game in places like India and China."
This season, the Kings have televised more than 20 games in India, launched a team website in Hindi, sent their dance team to Mumbai and signed their first India-based sponsor with Jimboy's Tacos. Ranadive and Commissioner Silver have plans to visit India soon, and they're hoping to bring a Kings experience to India, either as a preseason game or exhibition event.
Duffy called Ranadive a "great ambassador for India from a business perspective."
"He's huge," he said. "I think Vivek is the key to the NBA's expansion in India because he's from India and he's highly motivated to bring the sport to India. I think it's just a matter of time. They'll start to have games there when they get their arenas up to code. I expect India to be a priority for Adam because he's a smart man and he knows that it's a huge market with a lot of revenue."
While expansion in India has some challenges—a country where education is stressed first, there's no pro hoops league and basketball sneaker brands don't exist to push product and interest, among a few factors—it's only a matter of time before Silver accomplishes his first big international task.