Although the major American leagues continue to dominate the global sports market financially, they are still fighting to develop their fanbases overseas. Opening offices in new territories and launching major marketing initiatives has proven successful at reaching new fans, but getting them in front of live action remains the ultimate goal of league bosses hoping to convert casual followers into die-hards. To this end, they have brought the mountain to Muhammad.
The National Football League’s International Series has proved a genuine success in London, with five regular-season games slated to take place in 2018, the 12th year matches have been played in the UK capital. This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) first fixtures in the city, when the Orlando Magic faced off against the Atlanta Hawks in two pre-season exhibition games at the now-defunct London Docklands Arena.
A quarter-century on, the NBA is warming up for an eighth annual regular-season fixture in the city’s O2 Arena, at a time when the world’s preeminent basketball league is more popular in the UK than it has been for a generation. Stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook have helped to drive viewing figures of BT Sport’s live Sunday-night NBA coverage up 90 per cent from the 2015-16 to 2016-17 season, while the O2 has sold out all 20,000 of its seats in each of the eight years it has held a game.
Ben Morel has been the NBA’s senior vice president and managing director of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for six of those eight years, and has overseen the growth of the London Game from experimental novelty to a staple of the NBA calendar and one of its “tent-pole events”. Here, he tells SportBusiness International about the development of the league’s overseas strategy and how it intends to grow its brand internationally.
How has the NBA London Game grown in the eight years that you’ve hosted a regular-season fixture in the O2?
This year will be the 25th anniversary of our first pre-season game in London, back in 1993, and it’s growing from strength to strength. There’s great appetite from our fans to come to the game, and the interest is not only in London, it’s across the UK and Europe. The demand across Europe has grown dramatically, so we say internally that this is our European All-Star game, where the whole of Europe – whether it’s our fans or our business partners – wants to attend. It’s becoming a classic in the sport calendar.
What are your measures for the success of the game?
The arena is the same, and we sell out every year as fast as the system allows. We’ve got interest from our sponsors going from strength to strength. This year, Nike will be the presenting partner, using that platform to enhance the communication around their relationship with the NBA that started back in October  with them coming in as our official outfitter. The London marketplace is really important for Nike as one of their global cities for their basketball business. On top of Nike we’ve got ten other well-known partners, and a good mix of global and local partners. Müller Rice, for instance, have done a national promotion; Capital Radio are doing a national promotion. So the success with our sponsors and how they use the game as a key activation platform is very strong.
And then in terms of our broadcasters, we’ve got a lot of our broadcast partners from across Europe coming to cover it live on-site and treating it as a start to the play-off race. We’ve got the Christmas games, we’ve got the London Game, the All-Star Game, the Play-Offs and the Finals. London is one of the tent-pole events of the NBA calendar.
How closely do you work with BT Sport [the NBA’s UK broadcast partner] on the broadcast of the event?
They love it, obviously. We’re in daily contact with them throughout the year on how we activate and they’re a central part of the programme. The game will be on BT Sport 2 and free on their Facebook page, so this is obviously a key way for them to attract a larger audience and drive it to the regular BT coverage throughout the rest of the year. It’s a very important event for them as well as for us.
How are responsibilities divided in the NBA’s international operations? Does the London office have much autonomy from NBA HQ in New York?
We are a truly global business, so we operate like one. My team has the responsibility to drive the P&L for all our business lines across the EMEA region, but obviously we do that in full partnership and collaboration with our global headquarters to make sure that we leverage global relationships and that we are able to sell the rights we are entitled to sell. We’ve got a lot of staff based internationally, in 13 offices around the world, and it has always been a clear strategy of the NBA to have relevant on-the-ground employees in our key markets.
We have contact with other overseas offices in the same way; discussing similar opportunities that we might have, similar challenges, similar solutions, and obviously linking on big discussions because a lot of our partners and prospects are interested in the global appeal of the NBA and that requires a lot of coordination. There’s constant discussion not only with New York but with the other regional offices.
We don’t look at markets with a conquest mentality. The approach will vary greatly from one market to another. The key way will be the strength of the sport market as well as the popularity of basketball itself in that market, so we would look at those two things and adjust our strategy accordingly. That’s a very binary description and it’s obviously a lot more complex than that, but how much does the sport exist, or not exist? How much do we need to explain the sport? There are very few markets where you need to do that, but the popularity of the game is important. Then the strength of the sport market and the appetite of sponsors and broadcasters is the other issue.
Outside of the US, what are the biggest territories for the NBA, and where does the UK and Europe rank within that?
China and Europe are among the key regions. The UK is a primary market for us in terms of our European business. It’s the number one market for our League Pass business; we’ve got 1.4 million followers of our UK Facebook page; it’s one of the leading markets we have in terms of merchandising, especially in e-commerce where it’s the second market. So it’s a market that resonates, and obviously it’s a very big sport market so there’s a lot of opportunity for us.
How important is it for you to hold games overseas to gain a foothold in new territories?
Bringing the game to the market is very important. It’s an opportunity for our fans to experience an NBA live experience, and the regular season game is the most authentic experience you can get. It’s also very important for our partners – whether local or global – to have a platform to activate strongly around the NBA at a key moment in the year. The third objective is to give us an opportunity to showcase to all our partners what the NBA is. They don’t have that many opportunities to experience the NBA so to do that is pretty important.
A game is nice, but it’s also just one part of a 360-degree strategy to grow the popularity of the sport. Beyond the London Game for example, it’s about bringing our game to a more available time slot – lot of our games in the US are in the middle of the night in Europe, so we’ve got big initiatives like NBA Sundays where every Sunday of the season there will be a game at 20:30 local UK time, to create a regular appointment with our fans. Our ratings on NBA Sundays have grown 25 per cent year-on-year across Europe, they grew 90 per cent in the UK. The strategy is working.
What other efforts are you putting into growing the NBA brand in the UK and Europe?
We also work very closely with the local governing bodies across Europe and here in the UK with our junior NBA programmes, and that really has the objective of putting a basketball in the hands of as many kids as possible to make sure that we grow the participation in basketball.
The overseas games are essential but they are one of the many pillars that hold up our strategy. What is difficult is to attribute what part of the effort is boosting that popularity or not, but we know that by going at it with a 360-degree approach, we’ll grow the participation, the popularity of the game and of our brand.
Participation is definitely up. It’s so simple to play, you need a hoop and you need a ball and in every gym you will have it. The NBA might be a US sports league but we’re a US league of a global sport and that helps dramatically. We’re not in a position where we have to explain the sport. We have to grow its popularity and participation levels.