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NBA to rotate Europe game across continent after first Paris fixture

  • Charlotte Hornets to face Milwaukee Bucks at revamped AccorHotels Arena on January 24
  • League intends to bring annual event to Spain, Germany and Italy, as well as UK and France
  • Hornets hosting economic development event in Paris to drum up business for team and region

The National Basketball Association is planning to rotate its annual regular-season game in Europe across the continent after moving the fixture to Paris this season following a nine-year stint in London.

On January 24, the Charlotte Hornets will face the Milwaukee Bucks at the recently-renovated AccorHotels Arena in the Bercy neighborhood, in an event officially known as the NBA Paris Game 2020.

The Paris fixture is the first outside of London’s O2 Arena since the NBA began staging regular-season games in Europe in 2011, and will now begin a geographic rotation around the continent. It is also the first NBA game in the French capital since the New York Knicks played the Minnesota Timberwolves there in 2010 as part of the preseason NBA Europe Live Tour.

In total, the game will be the NBA’s 11th in France, one of which featured the Hornets against the Golden State Warriors in 1994. The Bucks, meanwhile, will be playing their first game in the country.

For many years, other cities in Europe have expressed an interest in staging regular-season games and last year the NBA decided the time was right to take the game out of London and move it to Paris. According to ESPN, league officials have been disappointed with a lack of increased visibility for basketball in the British market despite the platform of the 2012 London Olympics and the extended presence of the NBA in the past decade.

Now, in its attempt to further expand the league’s reach across Europe, the NBA will take the in-season showpiece event throughout the basketball heartlands of the continent, moving from cities like Berlin and Madrid at regular intervals.

“Every city in Europe would want to have this game. When you are talking about [potential host] cities, you are thinking about places in Italy, Spain and Germany – those are our core markets in addition to the UK and France and would be on our short list,” Ralph Rivera, managing director of NBA Europe and Middle East, tells SportBusiness. “We’re not looking at an eight-year run anywhere like we’ve done in London [from 2011 to 2019, with a break in 2012]. We are looking at rotating cities, but we’re not going to have an eight-year drought as well.

“Paris is a really strong candidate for subsequent games and London would be a strong candidate for a future game as well. Over the next four or five years I do expect to be back in London and I do expect to be back in Paris in that time frame and I do expect other cities to be in the mix as well,” Rivera says.

Paris an obvious first choice for new host city

Paris was chosen as the first new stop away from London for three principal reasons, according to Rivera.

Firstly, France has a strong basketball community, with significant recent growth in the local professional game, most notably the Lyon-based club LDLC ASVEL which is owned by French former NBA superstar Tony Parker and has secured commercial partnerships with Ligue 1 soccer club Olympique Lyonnais. The NBA also has a large following in France with the opening-night rosters for the 2018-19 season featuring nine French players, more than any European country for the 12th consecutive season.

“France is a really strong market for us. It’s the No. 1 merchandising market [in Europe], it’s the No. 2 market for [subscription streaming service] NBA League Pass. From a partnership perspective it’s really strong as well,” Rivera said.

Secondly, Paris is a globally-known destination city that attracts fans from across Europe. Tickets for the Hornets-Bucks game sold out within minutes of going on sale in October, and at one point there were approximately 150,000 people waiting to buy tickets for the game. Fans from more than 30 countries are coming to the fixture, according to NBA Europe.

Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, the AccorHotels Arena was considered a suitable venue by the NBA following a $155m (€140m), 18-month refurbishment that increased its capacity to 20,300 seats (from 17,000) and upgraded the facility overall.

“It has been refurbished to the point where we feel comfortable that it will deliver an authentic regular-season experience,” Rivera adds.

The AccorHotels Arena (Getty Images)

Leading US sports and entertainment company AEG operates both the AccorHotels Arena and O2 Arena. Executives from AEG Europe first proposed a Paris game to NBA commissioner Adam Silver in 2016, and ever since there has been a sense of inevitability that the game would eventually go to the French capital.

It is possible that two regular-season games could be played in Europe in the future – as happened in 2011 with a double-header between the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors. But the logistics will need to be ironed out first.

NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said in London last January: “It’s been one (regular-season game) per year. I definitely think there’s room for more than that. We will have to figure out what that optimum number is, whether that’s two or three. I don’t think there’s any potential limit as long as it makes sense from a business standpoint.”

Record 14 sponsorship deals for game

The Hornets and Bucks were deliberately chosen as the participating teams. Not only were both franchises willing to slightly disrupt their campaigns to play a regular-season game in Europe, but they also both have strong ties to France and Europe.

The leading player on the Bucks is Greek superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, who won the league’s Most Valuable Player title last year and is, understandably, hugely popular in his home country and throughout Europe.

The Hornets, meanwhile, had two French international players on their roster at the time of the announcement last March, Nicolas Batum and Parker, though Parker retired at the end of the 2018-19 campaign.

“There was certainly a hope that we would be able to bring a team over with two French players…but we completely understood his decision to retire,” Hornets president Fred Whitfield tells SportBusiness.

There are also historical ties between Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan and Paris. NBA legend Jordan played in the French capital with the Chicago Bulls in the pre-season McDonald’s Championship in 1997.

Charlotte Hornets majority owner Michael Jordan visited Paris in 1997 with the Chicago Bulls (Getty Images)

The NBA Paris Game 2020 will have a significant commercial element. Qatar-based broadcaster beIN Sports has been named the official presenting partner of the event, and will broadcast the Bucks-Hornets game live in France and across the Middle East and North Africa. Elsewhere, it will be aired in more than 200 countries on NBA League Pass.

Other marketing partners involved in the event include Beats by Dr. Dre (Beats), Fanatics, Foot Locker, Gatorade, Nike, ParionsSport, SAP, Tissot and 2K, along with promotional partners Accor, La Banque Postale, Pringles, and Yop. The 14 total sponsorship deals represent a new high for an NBA game in Europe. It has also been reported that luxury fashion brand Louis Vuitton will announce a partnership with the NBA in Paris this week.

In addition to the on-court action, there will be a variety of ancillary activities, such as NBA House, a free interactive fan experience and hospitality venue which is open from January 23-26, as well as NBA Cares community outreach initiatives and Jr. NBA basketball programming. Among those making the trip from the United States are Hornets legends Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry, Bucks legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and both team mascots.

Traditionally, many London-based Premier League players from clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea sat courtside at NBA regular-season games at the O2 Arena. And it is expected that French celebrities, including players from leading Ligue 1 club Paris St-Germain, will be invited to attend the Bucks-Hornets game.

Meanwhile, Nike’s Jordan Brand, which sponsors both the Hornets and PSG, will take the opportunity to activate. It will release a special Air Jordan 34 shoe during the week, while PSG will reportedly release a fourth-choice team jersey on the day of the game as well.

“When you think about Nike and Jordan Brand you think about the relationships that cut across basketball and [soccer], you’re going to see those connections played out in-arena and by our partners,” Rivera says.

Hornets hosting economic development event

The participating teams are using the trip to Paris as a business opportunity for themselves and their local regions.

On January 23, the day before the game, the Hornets are putting on an economic development event in partnership with the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance. Bank of America and Honeywell, both Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Charlotte, are sponsoring the event.

It will feature a sports-themed panel discussion “The Ball is in Your Court: Doing Business in the Charlotte Region,” which will be moderated by ESPN senior vice-president of college networks Rosalyn Durant, and include Whitfield, Charlotte Regional Business Alliance president and CEO Janet LaBar, Bank of America vice chairman and president for EU and Switzerland Bruce Thompson, and Honeywell senior vice president and general counsel Anne Madden.

NBA executives and legends will also be in attendance, including Silver, who is providing opening remarks, as well as nine senior executives of the Hornets’ corporate partners.

There will also be a reception, and both events are designed with the goal of attracting key European business leaders – specifically from manufacturing, banking and fintech (financial technology) industries – and to promote to them the city of Charlotte and the surrounding region for future business and economic investment.

“Any time we have an opportunity to put our team and our franchise on the global stage, we always think about our city and our region and what potentially business opportunities [there may be] so we can have others learn more about why we all love Charlotte and love living here,” Whitfield says.

“When we were notified that we had been selected [to play in Paris], we immediately contacted the Charlotte Regional Business Alliance and talked to them about collaborating on a large economic development event, where we could recruit companies from across Europe to think about doing business in Charlotte in a big way,” he says.

Beginning with the 2019-20 season, the NBA has allowed teams to sell global marketing rights to two international partners. It is something the Washington Wizards have already capitalized on by signing a reported seven-figure deal with Japanese technology company NEC Corporation following the arrival of Japanese star Rui Hachimura. The Hornets are hoping to potentially sign European international partners as a result of the trip to Paris.

“We’re always looking for looking for strategic partners around the globe that feel like our brand and their brand can work together and add value to each other,” Whitfield adds. “Certainly, when we’re hosting our economic development summit but also when we’re in and around the Paris region, we’re certainly looking forward to meeting business leaders from France in the hopes that we can have conversations about how we can partner in the future.”

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