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NBA uses Summer League to retain year-round relevance and extend its global footprint

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 08: A general view of the court shows the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers during a 2017 Summer League game at the Thomas & Mack Center on July 8, 2017 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Celtics won 86-81. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

  • All 30 NBA teams participating in Las Vegas showcase, alongside China and Croatia national teams
  • ESPN and NBA TV combining to broadcast all 83 games on national TV in the United States
  • League officials “hoping to welcome additional international teams [to the event] in the years to come”

Once considered a niche event and something of an afterthought, the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League now serves as a valuable tool for the NBA to remain relevant in its off-season and engage with newer, younger fans.

This year’s tournament – which begins July 5 at the Thomas & Mack Center and the Cox Pavilion on the campus of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas – includes all 30 NBA teams for the second consecutive season.

And with the league looking to expand its significant international reach, the Chinese and Croatian national teams have also been invited to participate. It will be the first time that two international teams will take part in the event, with Team China having played in a previous iteration of the tournament in 2007.

All 32 teams will play four preliminary games, with the top eight seeded in a tournament which culminates with a championship game on July 15. Teams that do not qualify for the tournament will each play a consolation game, meaning participants will play between five and seven games.

By combining multiple smaller summer leagues spread out over the US, the NBA has successfully turned a showcase for future stars into a fan-friendly event that continues to break its own TV ratings and attendance records.

Last year’s Summer League set a record for total attendance (139,972) for the second consecutive year and matched the single-day attendance record (17,500), which was set in 2017 when Lonzo Ball made his debut for the LA Lakers. Ticket sales have doubled in the last four years alone.

The prospect of seeing another highly-touted superstar – Zion Williamson, former Duke University star and the New Orleans Pelicans’ No. 1 overall draft pick – is widely expected to lead to increased interest this year. Tickets for Day One, when Williamson will make his Pelicans’ debut, sold out weeks ago, while tickets are being sold on the secondary market for more than $130 each.

Lonzo Ball #2 of the Los Angeles Lakers looks on during a game against the Boston Celtics during the 2017 Summer League in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

ESPN will present every Summer League game via the ESPN App, along with 43 games on its linear television networks (ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU). Meanwhile, NBA TV will air 40 games, meaning that every game will be broadcast live on national television in the United States for the second consecutive year. They are also all available to more than 200 countries and territories worldwide via the league’s streaming service NBA League Pass.

As the event has grown in popularity, so have TV ratings. The 2018 tournament was the most-watched Summer League ever, with ESPN and NBA TV combining to amass 30.4 million hours viewed in the US. Fans across social media platforms accounted for more than 565 million video views, an increase of 35 per cent from the previous year.

This is likely to spike further this year thanks to Team China’s participation and the presence of Chinese digital partners Weibo and ByteDance in Las Vegas to capture behind-the-scenes content.

The Summer League has wider benefits for the NBA as well. It represents an important tool with which to engage with a younger audience thanks to its daytime matches, the low cost of tickets, and that the fact that the US school year has finished.

It also offers NBA’s commercial partners, such as MGM and Budweiser, further chances to activate, and the league an opportunity to experiment with new rules and strategies. According to ESPN, the Summer League will this year pilot a ‘connected basketball’, an official NBA game ball with a motion-tracking chip inside of it.

Kim Bohuny, NBA senior vice-president of international basketball operations, spoke to SportBusiness about the Summer League’s growing popularity and its increased role in the league’s international expansion.

Why are the Chinese and Croatian National Teams taking part in the Summer League? What is the thought process behind it?
Having the Chinese and Croatian Men’s National Teams participate in the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League 2019 is an important part of our continued efforts to grow basketball around the world. China and Croatia are two countries with rich basketball traditions and passionate fanbases, and these games will provide an opportunity for fans in China and Croatia to watch their National Teams compete against up-and-coming NBA players and future NBA stars. It will also be a great opportunity for young NBA players to test themselves against the different styles of play and overall experience that China and Croatia present.

NBA senior vice-president of international basketball operations Kim Bohuny (NBA)

What is it about the Summer League that makes it a good conduit to expand the NBA’s international reach?
What’s exciting about the NBA Summer League is that we can experiment with new ideas and technologies, as we have in recent years with alternate production elements for the broadcast and rule changes like the coach’s challenge. By bringing in world-class teams from outside the U.S., we can continue to grow the event’s global footprint. All of this year’s Summer League games will air or stream live in the U.S. on the ESPN networks and NBA TV, in China on Tencent, and in Croatia on NBA League Pass, reaching fans in more than 200 countries and territories around the world.

Did you have interest from many other countries to take part or did you just invite these two?
As the popularity of the NBA Summer League has continued to grow, we’ve received interest from other countries about participating and continue to explore new opportunities to grow the event. Ultimately, we felt like bringing in two additional teams made the most sense this year now that all 30 NBA teams are represented, and we’ll see how this year goes.

What specific sponsorship activations do you have planned around their participation?
We’re still working through specific activations, but in general we expect strong fan and media support from China and Croatia, both on-site in Las Vegas and back at home. A number of our media partners in these countries and regions will carry these games and activate around them locally. Two of our digital partners in China – Weibo and ByteDance – will have crews in Las Vegas and will capture behind-the-scenes content from Team China’s trip for the NBA’s more than 45 million followers on those platforms.

Is the participation of foreign teams something you are likely to continue/extend in future years in the Summer League – or is this a one-off?
We’ll see how this year goes. We host international club teams from all over the world every preseason, and we’ve played exhibition games against international club teams overseas for more than 30 years. Ultimately these games are great for everyone involved, and as the NBA Summer League becomes an increasingly global event, we hope to welcome additional international teams in the years to come.

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