NBA India Games 2019 expected to be ‘landmark moment for basketball in India’

  • Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers taking part in league’s first pre-season games in country
  • Mumbai-born Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé played ‘critical role’ in making event become a reality
  • NBA India office has long-term goal to make basketball the second-most popular sport in India

Shortly after Indian-American billionaire Vivek Ranadivé became majority owner of the National Basketball Association’s Sacramento Kings in 2013, the Indiana Pacers owner Herb Simon told the computer software entrepreneur: “I know you’re gonna go to India one day, so you have to promise me you’ll take me with you.”

That long-standing promise is coming to fruition this week when the Kings and Pacers take part in two NBA pre-season games at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai on October 4-5. Ninety per cent of tickets at the 8,000-seater arena sold out in just two hours when they went on sale in August.

The NBA India Games 2019 are not only the NBA’s first competitive matches in the country but they will also mark the first time that teams from any North American sports league will play in India.

“This is my vision of NBA 3.0, where basketball really becomes the premier sport of the 21st century,” Ranadivé told NBC Sports California in January. “And capturing the hearts and minds of a billion Indians is key to that.”

Ranadivé, a Mumbai native who is NBA’s first India-born owner, has long campaigned for the league to go to the country ever since he took over the Kings in May 2013. The following year, Ranadivé and NBA commissioner Adam Silver – who will be in India this week – visited the country on a promotional visit to help grow the game in the territory.

Since then, the Kings have continued their outreach in the country by launching a website in Hindi, putting on an annual Bollywood Night, live-streaming regular-season games in India on Facebook, building an alternative court which includes a Hindi logo, and even signing the league’s first player of Indian descent, center Sim Bhullar, to a 10-day contract in 2015.

While the Kings have been at the forefront of the league’s outreach into India, the NBA itself sees the country – with its population of approximately 1.37 billion people – as a rich untapped market as it looks to increase its ever-expanding global presence.

Since 2006, more than 35 current and former NBA and WNBA players, including Brooklyn Nets superstar Kevin Durant, have visited India on promotional visits. The NBA India office in Mumbai opened in 2011 while the NBA Academy India, an elite training camp, opened in Delhi in 2017.

There are also youth development initiatives in the country, such as the Reliance Foundation Junior NBA program, which began in 2013 and has now reached over 10 million children and trained over 10,000 teachers in basketball coaching.

Indians have access more than 350 live games, 80 of which are available with Hindi commentary, via the territory’s Sony channels. Meanwhile, this year the NBA live-streamed the NBA Finals between the Toronto Raptors and Golden State Warriors to fans in India via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube for the first time.

The Pacers, for their part, have little direct links to India but they are looking to use the opportunity to grow the brand of the team overseas and help foster business relationships.

“When the league approached us about making the trip over there to play, we jumped at the opportunity,” the Pacers’ general manager Chad Buchanan told SportBusiness. “We’re the kind of organization that likes to try new things and experiment with new opportunities.

“We’re also bringing quite a large contingent, both of the team and local business leaders, both from Indianapolis and the state of Indiana to talk about business opportunities on both sides. It’s a chance to create some dialogue.”

Diane Gotua, NBA India’s vice-president of global business operations, spoke to SportBusiness about the thinking behind the NBA India Games 2019 and what the plans are during the teams’ visit to the country.

How popular exactly is the NBA in India and how has this grown in recent years?
Gotua: Our business in India has never been better, and we think the future of basketball and the NBA in India is incredibly bright. Last season, more than 91 million viewers in India tuned in to NBA programming on SONY SIX, SONY ESPN, SONY TEN 1 and SONY TEN 3. NBA products are widely available in more than 750 retail stores across India and on our local e-commerce site, NBAStore.in on Myntra. The NBA India Facebook drove a record 1.25 billion impressions during 2018-19 season, reaching an average of 3.8 million people daily. We’re encouraged by all the metrics we look at and think the first-ever NBA games in India will be a landmark moment for basketball in India.

Which players and teams are the most popular in the country?
G: Generally, fans tend to gravitate to the most successful players and teams in any global sport, and basketball is no different. The vast majority look up to the global icons of the NBA like LeBron James of the Los Angeles Lakers and Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors. This was evident through our merchandise sales in India, where James and Curry were the most popular players while the Chicago Bulls, Lakers and Warriors were the most popular teams.

We also witnessed incredible engagement during the 2018-19 finals with the Toronto Raptors taking home the NBA Championship for the first time in the franchise’s history. Viewership and engagement around the NBA Finals on NBA India’s Facebook were up 100 per cent from 2018, resulting in 15.8 million views and 1.2 million engagements.

What did it take for this initiative to become a reality?
G: It was just a matter of time for all the pieces to come together. We received an overwhelming response from NBA teams to be a part of the first-ever NBA India Games. We have worked together with our partners in India to ensure the fans receive the authentic NBA experience that you would see at any NBA game. Partners like Reliance Foundation share our vision of providing more than 3,000 youth from our Jr. NBA program in India with the unforgettable experience of seeing the first-ever NBA game in India in-person. The games come at a time when interest in basketball and the NBA is at an all-time high across the country.

Are there any specific goals are you looking to achieve – in the short- and long-term?
G: All our efforts – from the grassroots initiatives to enhancing viewership to bringing the NBA experience to our fan – are focused on growing the game of basketball in India. There is incredible interest in basketball, and we are committed to providing the coaching and resources to help young Indian boys and girls learn the game and maximize their potential. We hope to make basketball the second-most popular sport in India in the near future [behind cricket] and draw more fans along the way.

How much of a role did Vivek Ranadivé’s majority ownership of the Sacramento Kings play a role in the Kings being selected as a participating team?
G: Vivek shares our vision for growing basketball in India and has played a critical role in making these games a reality. We have had numerous discussions about playing games in India with Vivek since he became the NBA’s first Indian-born majority governor in 2013. We are happy that our joint vision is now a reality, and we are incredibly excited for Vivek and the Kings to play in front of Mumbai fans.

What will the league and the teams be doing outside of the games in regard to brand awareness?
G: The NBA, Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers will lead a series of grassroots community, youth basketball and elite development events and programs that will impact thousands of young people, teachers, coaches and families across Mumbai. In partnership with the Reliance Foundation and the American Indian Foundation, weeklong NBA Cares, Jr. NBA, Her Time to Play and NBA Academy programming will feature basketball clinics, community impact projects and special events designed to encourage physical fitness, inspire play, and create safe, technology-equipped spaces to support education for boys and girls of all ages.

Will pre-season trips in India become a regular thing?
G: India is a market we value very highly and will always be in consideration when determining where we play international games. Having said that, our priority is maximizing player health and performance – and scheduling pre-season and regular-season games goes directly with that. As I mentioned, we are committed to India and the growth of basketball.

Can you foresee a time when there will be regular-season games in India?
G: One of the benefits of coming over in the pre-season is that our teams and players have more time to engage with the local community, conduct clinics and meet with fans. India is a market we value very highly and will always be in consideration when determining where to play international games.

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