NBA boss Adam Silver hopes for global basketball bounce

New York Knicks v Milwaukee Bucks Image copyright AP
Image caption The Knicks v The Bucks is the latest big NBA game to be staged in the UK

The glamour of the NBA has come to London for its ninth sell-out game as the sport continues its drive to take basketball to new markets outside its US heartland.

At the O2 Arena, London, the Milwaukee Bucks will take on the New York Knicks in the fifth "regular-season" competitive game in the UK, and one which sold out in record time.

In the US, new television contracts are going to inject a huge cash infusion into the league, while the ballooning prices being paid for NBA team franchises show a sport whose properties are in demand by business purchasers.

In the UK however, after moving from friendly games to regular-season ones, does the NBA need to jump to a new stage of development?

"For many the next step is to have more regular-season games," Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, told the BBC.

"But [development is] as long as we are making progress in terms of young people playing basketball, number of people watching on TV, number of people following the game on social media in the UK."

He said on that point, the NBA's research showed that basketball was the second most popular sport among young people in Europe, including the UK.

'Lot of work'

A European franchise has long been mooted as the next step up the ladder for the sport as it looks to compete with football for international followers.

"It is on our list as something that we continue to explore, but we do not want to get ahead of ourselves - it is something we continue to study. There is an opportunity to bring NBA basketball to Europe on a permanent basis," he says.

"It is something we ultimately want to do, but a lot of work needs to be done."

Adam Silver, NBA Commissioner

Image copyright AP
  • Earned a law degree from University of Chicago, and worked as a lawyer prior to joining the NBA
  • First joined the league in 1992
  • Unanimously appointed NBA Commissioner by the NBA Board of Governors
  • Served as NBA deputy commissioner and chief operating officer (COO) for eight years
  • Prior to being second in command, spent more than eight years as president and COO, NBA Entertainment

Unfortunately, British breakthrough in the sport around the London 2012 Olympics did not happen - the men and women's teams only won one game between them, and the sport suffered a £7m funding cut last year.

Emergency funding of £1.18m was needed from Sport England after the government intervened, and Mr Silver admits that he is "disappointed we are not further along [as] as we have set very high standards".

He said he recognised there were limits to what governments could do, and that there was a responsibility on FIBA, the international federation, and the NBA to nurture a more positive and professional environment for basketball in the UK other markets.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The UK fan base is growing but work is needed on the playing side

Mr Silver took over as the the commissioner of the NBA in February 2014, after serving in a number of posts with the organisation over the previous 22 years.

And the 52-year-old was pitched in at the deep end with a race controversy just a couple of months later.

He ultimately banned Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling from the NBA for life in response to racist comments he made, and forced through the sale of the team, which was snapped up by former Microsoft chief Steve Ballmer.

But apart from the moral dimension (he called Mr Sterling's remarks "hateful opinions" and "deeply offensive and harmful"), was his decision also informed by commercial considerations, concerned that the NBA brand could be tarnished or that players could boycott games.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The Donald Sterling case was Mr Silver's first big challenge

"It would be hard to separate the factors I was thinking about," he says. "I am the CEO of a business, and I have to do what is in the best interests of the business."

He said his decision was not based on short-term commercial threats, but was "done on what would be best for the game, the fans, and the players".

On television in the US, the sport's ratings have been up and down over the past decade, but the product appears to be in demand with TV executives.

The last NBA media rights deal, signed last autumn with ESPN and Turner Sports for nine years, is worth $24bn (£16bn).

The deal, which takes effect in the 2016/17 season, will see the firms pay the NBA roughly $2.6bn a year, up by 180% on the $930m currently paid annually.

"I was not surprised by the increase," he says, adding that it merely recognised the quality of the product in a tight market place for attractive viewing properties.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption US TV channels have paid handsomely for NBA media rights

"It has put us in a position where we have locked in growth, and the funds to reinvest in the sport in the USA and internationally."

The value of team franchises is also robust. Last year long-time Bucks owner Herb Kohl sold the team to New York-based billionaires Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry for $550m. And Mr Ballmer paid a reported $2bn for the Clippers.

Now the Atlanta Hawks are up for sale. They were valued in 2014 by Forbes at $425m, but that was before the Clippers auction.

"It is a function of the market," remarks Mr Silver. "We have seen enormous growth in the the value of the franchises. My expectation is that we will again see a healthy price for the Hawks.

"It is an indication of the tremendous interest in teams as a growth stock."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The NBA says there is still growth potential in China

Outside the US, the full global mission for the 2014/15 season has seen a total of nine NBA teams playing seven games - two regular-season (London and Mexico City) and five pre-season games - in seven cities in six countries.

In terms of sporting development, China has been important to the NBA over the past 10 years, as it has been a huge growth market for the sport, and he says interest in basketball there is far from sated.

"We are far, far from maximum capacity in China, even though we believe we are the number one sport there," he says.

He points out that there are 300 million playing at present, with another further potential 800 million "still to be converted".

Other future growth markets include India, where Mr Silver is increasingly spending time, and where a young population means the NBA "sees an opportunity there", despite the power of cricket.

There is also a drive into Africa, with an NBA All Star Game to be held in Johannesburg, South Africa, this year.

He says: "We are seeing sporting barriers come down, the world is becoming smaller because of technology and media - we are in a global market."

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