Business

NBA basketball looks to net more UK fans

New Jersey Nets' Deron Williams shoots a free throw
Image caption Deron Williams is one of the biggest names at the New Jersey Nets

The first-ever regular season NBA basketball games in London take place this Friday and Saturday when the New Jersey Nets take on the Toronto Raptors.

After a number of friendly matches featuring top teams, the US-based sports league is hoping the two matches at the O2 arena will help grow the sport of basketball as well as the NBA brand in the UK.

And the Nets, bought in May 2010 by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, are keen to use the games as a means of promoting their brand globally.

"The NBA has been at the forefront of globalising the sport, and these games are all part of that" says Brett Yormark, chief executive of the New Jersey Nets for the past six years.

"With our team moving to Brooklyn next year and our drive to increase our global appeal, we thought it was a great opportunity and one that is good for our business."

Mr Yormark is a busy man, regularly rising before 4am to start work, and he has been scouring the globe looking for new sponsors and partners for the Nets.

As part of the overseas thrust they have held clinics in Moscow and played pre-season games in China, where Peak sports shoes are a Nets sponsor.

Mr Prokhorov has an 80% stake in the club, and following that takeover the Nets signed two high-profile deals with Russian firms - airline Aeroflot and the vodka brand Stolnoskaya.

'Active site'

Its expansion mission has also seen the club begin building a new $1bn (£615m) stadium, the Barclays Center, before it moves from New Jersey to Brooklyn in summer 2012.

"Construction is well under way, steel is coming up out of the ground, it is a very active site," says 44-year-old Mr Yormark, who made his name at Nascar racing.

Image caption The Nets' Brooklyn stadium is expected to open in 2012

"We will open with some concerts and be ready for [NBA] season 2012/013."

But besides music and basketball - it also sees the stadium as "as a place for companies, national and international, to launch their brands" - in other words an opportunity to sell sponsorship deals.

"We are looking to fill some key categories - automobile, airline, and insurance," says Mr Yormark.

'Renaissance'

Despite the economic downturn and the delay to the new stadium, existing business partners, have remained loyal says My Yormark who as part of the partnership with Barclays has been to the bank's Canary Wharf headquarters to give staff an update on stadium progress.

Image caption Mr Yormark first made his name in Nascar stock car racing

The Brooklyn move is intended to improve and increase revenue streams for the Nets, who have been reported as making a loss for a number of years, as well as putting the team at the heart of a huge potential New York supporter base.

The stadium will have a variety of executive boxes, including top-priced ones next to the changing room area and providing courtside seats, as well as more modestly priced smaller boxes.

"There is a renaissance happening in Brooklyn and we are going to be part of that - in New Jersey we were in survival mode, and we hope our fans there can stick with us, but this move puts us in touch with a population of more than two million people in Brooklyn."

'Competition'

At present the Nets are near the bottom of the Eastern Conference - Atlantic division, but it is one of the aims of the sport to have a more competitive set-up.

"One of our goals is to create more competition among all 30 teams in the NBA," says Adam Silver, NBA deputy commissioner.

Like Mr Yormark, Mr Silver is in London for the two full-season games, the first time regular mid-season games have been played outside the north America, and which he calls "an experiment".

As part of its UK mission the NBA has agreed to play a series of games in Manchester next year.

Team USA, made up of some of the NBA's top stars, will take part in a warm-up match in 2012 ahead of the defence of their Olympic title.

"We are continuing to look to grow the sport in the UK, particularly among the young, as it's shown that if they play in their youth they are so much more likely to to be a fan when they grow up," he says.

As such, Mr Silver admits that the London games are about both sport and business, with the success of the latter hopefully building on the former.

At the same time it gives the NBA a chance to see how long it takes players to recover - considering factors such as travel and time and geographic differences - after playing a regular-season game outside their regular environment.

Collective bargaining

The NBA would also like to see Team GB take part in the 2012 Olympic games, and perhaps further down the line perhaps create a UK or European franchise "as part of our long-term aims".

Image caption Mr Silver says there have to be changes so NBA clubs balance their books

However, back home in the US there are challenges facing the NBA, with the current collective bargaining arrangement (CBA) coming to an this season, and loss-making club owners looking to cut the amount of money going to players.

"We believe that the current system is out of balance and that the players are taking too much out of the game," he says.

"We can change this into a business that balances its books or even makes money."

Meanwhile Mr Silver is in no doubt about the value of the two landmark games at the O2 on Friday and Saturday.

"These London games are hugely important because they are the next step of the evolution of NBA basketball outside the US," he says.

"We are demonstrating to fans here our commitment to grow the game in the UK and Europe, and around the world."

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