As far as sales pitches go, the case for the NBA can rarely have had more ammunition to draw on than in recent years.
The basketball league today brings a fixture to London for the seventh successive year when the Denver Nuggets play the Indiana Pacers at the O2 Arena – part of ongoing efforts to grow the game in new markets.
For Benjamin Morel, the NBA’s managing director and senior vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, those efforts have been made easier by a new generation of superstars, groundbreaking teams and gripping storylines.
Whether it’s the explosive emergence of Steph Curry as the league’s latest superstar, the record-breaking exploits of his team the Golden State Warriors or the fairytale story of LeBron James brining the NBA title home to Cleveland, there’s been plenty reason for new fans to take notice.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve had so many good stories on the court,” Morel told City A.M.
“We’ve seen players and teams break scoring records, things we’d never thought we’d see. The game keeps getting better.”
No wonder then that Morel reports tickets sold out for tomorrow’s game within hours of being made available and that the organisation’s UK Facebook page has enjoyed a 48 per cent rise in followers to its current figure of 1.3m in the last year.
Yet no more than 20,000 can fit into the O2 Arena. For those other 1.28m missing out, Morel says that while a UK franchise is a future hope, in the present the NBA is focusing on using new technologies and media to expand its footprint in regions across the globe.
This year, for the first time, the NBA and its UK broadcasting partner BT Sport will be live-streaming the game for free from the latter’s Facebook page — only the second time the league has ever put one of its games online for free — and on terrestrial channel BT Sport Showcase.
“A franchise has been talked about,” said Morel. “It remains an aspirational, long-term goal.
“But actually, with today’s technology and the ways you can consume content, one could say that the actual location of a game is less and less relevant. We are actually spending a lot of our time and effort on asking ‘how can we deliver the best experience to the 99.9 per cent of our fans, who will never be attending an NBA game?’”.
Streaming tomorrow’s game for free fits into a wider strategy from the organisation to experiment with the cutting edge of digital media in order to keep up with its fans’ viewing habits.
Last week NBA commissioner Adam Silver said the organisation was even thinking about selling the last five minutes of a game should people only want to tune in for the last gasp drama.
Silver suggested that if a match was headed for a dramatic climax, for instance, fans could be prompted to buy access to the last quarter via a push notification to mobile devices.
“That’s why this year we’ve launched new pilot initiatives, for instance making one game a week available in virtual reality,” says Morel. “We’ve created a camera view for our NBA League Pass products which is made for mobile, a much closer angle to action so it’s visible on a handheld device in a proper way.
“We want the NBA to be at the forefront of embracing digital and social media. We really focus on making sure whether you’re in the UK, Shanghai, Istanbul, Johannesburg or Rio, you are entitled to the best content experience there is. That is our No1 global objective.”
So while international games remain a key part of the NBA’s strategy, it is embracing digital over the physical in its battle with rivals such as the NFL to be America’s chief sporting export — and Morel believes the NBA already has an advantage.
"We’ve got 113 players — 25 per cent of all our players come from outside America and half of those are from Europe,” he says.
"Basketball is an international sport. It exists at varying degrees of popularity but it is truly present globally. And I think that does distinguish us from other rights holders.
"The NBA is the true global sport league.”