Page last updated at 06:08 GMT, Monday, 26 January 2009

NBA basketball eyes global expansion

By Bill Wilson
Business reporter, BBC News

Heidi Ueberroth
Heidi Ueberroth: NBA global marketing supremo and expansion strategist

Globalisation is a word that may have lost some of its lustre in the business world, but for sport it may be an idea whose time has arrived.

While the English football Premier League has struggled to sell its overseas game concept to a sceptical British media and fanbase, US sporting bodies have been setting out on global evangelisation.

Both the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the National Football League (NFL) have staged high-profile sell-out events in London featuring US teams, and even ice-hockey's NHL has staged challenge matches in Europe.

Now, in an ambitious statement of intent, basketball's flagship NBA league has moved into spacious new headquarters in London's bustling Kensington High Street.

From there - in its open plan accommodation above the Uruguayan Embassy - the NBA's EMEA division hopes to market the game to an area that includes Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

'Well placed'

"What we are seeing is the globalisation of sport, including basketball," Heidi Ueberroth, NBA President of Global Marketing Partnerships and International Business Operations, told the BBC business website.

"Even in these difficult economic times we think we are well placed. Like most organisations we are going through some belt-tightening, but are also looking to use the opportunity to drive into new areas," said the woman behind the global expansion drive.

Founded in 1946
30-team league, 29 teams from US & one from Canada
Annual turnover $4bn
Domestic TV deal of $7.5bn
Five European offices - London, Paris, Milan, Istanbul and Madrid
Four offices in China
"There is great interest and demand for our sport even in these difficult times."

And the 43-year-old, who joined the NBA in 1995, has no qualms about taking the game into markets where there already is a dominant sport, such as football in the UK.

"We look at it in a different, new way and focus on the attributes we have," says Ms Ueberroth, whose father Peter organised the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

"The elements we have are so global - the game is incredibly easy to understand, and accessible."

"It is easy in terms of infrastructure, you can have a two against two game almost anywhere."

'Long-term approach'

No one can doubt the NBA's expansion commitment - it has been patiently building a market in China for two decades and first staged a game in the UK in 1993.

Miami Heat v New Dwayne Wade of Miami Heat in last year's London game
The London game is set to be staged again in 2009

"It has been a very long-term approach. It has to be long term if we are to promote and sell the game around the world," she says.

And there is progress. Last autumn two NBA teams, the Miami Heat and the New Jersey Nets, played a pre-season friendly at London's O2 Arena. The match was a sell-out, and there are plans to stage another game this year.

Meanwhile, off the field, the UK has seen a sizeable increase in sales of NBA-branded products such as sports shoes.

Chinese way

India and East Asia are other target areas for the NBA, with the game experiencing rapid growth in China.

"I have just come back from the Middle East, and India, and China before that, and all these regions recognise the positive attributes of basketball," says Ms Ueberroth.

It is in China that the NBA's expansion has been most spectacular, with an estimated 12% of the urban Chinese population now playing basketball.

Youths playing basketball in Shanghai, China
Basketball is being increasingly played in the cities of China

Fourteen NBA games are broadcast live every week on state television and 51 regional stations. And a year ago NBA China was established, with investment from Disney's sports television channel ESPN, and four Chinese banks and trade groups.

"China is our number one market outside the US," she says.

"This process started back in 1985 when the Chinese basketball team was invited to visit the US back."

Now, 23 years on, the NBA has plans to design and develop 12 new arenas in partnership with stadium builder Anschutz Entertainment Group.

"We are working on an 18,000-seat arena in Shanghai which is planned to open for the World Expo there in May 2010."

'Impact players'

With the downturn in the US it may be that it is even-more important to find new areas of revenue, although Ms Ueberroth says US attendances "remain strong and on track".

Since the early 1990s the NBA has used stars such as Michael Jordan, Shaq O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Dwane Wade to market the game globally.

Luol Deng of NBA side Chicago Bulls
Chicago Bulls' star Luol Deng plays for the Great Britain team

"The NBA has some things that are different compared to other sports," she says.

"We have the best players from around the world playing in a single league. As well as the US we have players from 35 different countries.

"They include Tony Parker from France, Dirk Nowitzki from Germany, and Britain's Luol Deng - these players are all 'impact players."

But while these superstars can attract commercial partners at home and in overseas markets, it is gate revenues and TV money that are the real money earners for the NBA.

A US television contract that runs from October 2008 until the end of the 2015-16 season is reputed to be worth about $7.5bn, a one-fifth increase on the previous deal.

Online focus

Other cash generators are merchandise sales and the NBA's internet presence.

The network of 60 websites adds to other media assets including the league's own television channel, NBA TV, radio, and print publications.

We love being in London, it is a world city
Heidi Ueberroth, NBA

"For us a big area of focus is online," she says. "We are looking at new ways to connect with the young and tech-savvy audience.

"We have more and more customised websites, programme packages and information."

Meanwhile, as US President Barack Obama, a basketball fan, is said to be ready to install a court at the White House, in Kensington they are unpacking the last boxes and plugging in the drinks machines.

"We love being in London, it is a world city," says Ms Ueberroth.

"It is great to have something more than we had before, and everyone in the same space. We are planning to be here for the long term, we are really committed."

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