Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings face off in the US last December. The teams will play two pre-season games in Mumbai in October
Image: Michel Hickey / Getty Images
It was perhaps the next logical, and inevitable, step forward in the US National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) nearly decade-long tryst with India. The two pre-season NBA games due to be held in Mumbai in October will be the first time an international sports league will conduct matches here, although not regular season games.
When the Sacramento Kings play the Indiana Pacers at the NSCI Dome on October 4 and 5, it will be another step for NBA towards conquering what their commissioner Adam Silver had once called the “final frontier”. India is the only meaningful market left in the world—NBA already has a strong presence in China where it has held two pre-season games annually since 2004—with its large, young population presenting a great fit for the sport.
The country’s sporting infrastructure, too, has caught up with international standards, having hosted the Fifa Under-17 World Cup two years ago, and presents a fertile ground for sports businesses to tap into.
“Through these games, we are making a statement that India is a priority market for us,” explains Diane Gotua, vice president, global business operations commissioner’s office of the NBA. *****
The first regular-season NBA game outside North America was held in 1990 between Utah Jazz and Phoenix Suns in Tokyo. The league has held pre-season or regular games in 20 countries, including in cities like Manila, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro and Mexico City.
“It has always been my dream to play an NBA game in India. I am so grateful to Adam Silver for making these games, in my hometown, a reality,” says Vivek Ranadive, the India-born chairman and owner of Sacramento Kings.
The NBA academy in Noida started two years ago and now trains 24 boysImage: NBA India
For the teams, travelling abroad helps grow their fan base. “If we put up a good performance, they would possibly become lifelong fans,” says Kevin Pritchard, Indiana Pacers’ president of basketball operations. “Players want to develop their own brands, build their social platforms and get noticed. Also, business opportunities are not just in the US anymore.”
None of the Pacers’ players have been to India, Pritchard suspects, while Ranadive mentions Harrison Barnes who recently visited India and ended up playing cricket with a group of students in Mumbai.
All stakeholders reiterate the scale of the October matches, with structural engineers checking out the venue two years ago—even before the games were decided upon—to ensure it could be transformed into an NBA-quality venue. “There are markets where we would love to take the game but [they] don’t have an arena to work with,” says Gotua. “We also utilise these games to keep our [sponsor] partners happy.”
“It’s similar to a regular game, except it’s a longer trip,” says Pritchard. “We will try to make the trip a learning and bonding experience; we don’t want to waste time on the flight. We have nine new faces [for the season], which is incredible, out of a roster of 15 to 16.” The Indiana Pacers usually travel with 55 to 60 people in a normal NBA setting, and will have a few more for this offshore game.
Beyond the games, the players will participate in basketball camps for young enthusiasts. “Even if fans can’t attend the game, they will know NBA is in town,” adds Gotua.
More than 80 percent of tickets to the games were sold out within a week of them going on sale online, says Albert Almeida, COO, Live Entertainment, BookMyShow; with the ₹8,000 category selling out in under half an hour. Ticket prices range from ₹4,500 to more than ₹18,000. The venue has a seating capacity of 8,000. *****
NBA’s seriousness about India is apparent from the time, effort and resources it has invested in the country. Since opening an office in Mumbai in 2011, it started an academy in Noida—one out of seven in the world—over two years ago with 24 boys aged between 14 and 17. The academy selects trainees through a talent search, gives them a 100 percent scholarship and provides them training . The students get to participate in tournaments, camps and try-outs in the US and other countries. In partnership with Reliance Foundation, NBA also claims to have conducted basketball camps and tournaments for about 10,000 schools in 34 Indian cities.
“The best way for any sport to grow is by strengthening the grassroots level. NBA has added to the exposure, knowledge and mentoring for basketball,” says Raspreet Sidhu, a player in the Indian national team and head of sports at Shiv Nadar School, in the NCR.
The league’s growth is centred on creating more fans, getting higher viewership, encouraging larger numbers to play the sport and, ultimately, finding an Indian to star in the NBA in the US, starting with helping them get college scholarships.
“Through grassroots-level activity you get this massive pool of children with the hope that some will become super fans,” says Jonathan Rego, co-founder of content site Nation of Sport. “The moment you play, you get drawn to the best, which is the NBA. Focussing on the stories of local heroes makes sense simply because someone in Varanasi, while he wants to understand LeBron James [of Los Angeles Lakers], knows he or she stands a better chance at becoming a Vishesh Bhruguvanshi or a Divya Singh.”
Vaishnavi Yadav (in white) is among five players from the NBA Academies Women’s Program to have played college basketball in the USImage: NBA India
Broadcaster Sony Pictures Networks India has helped broaden NBA’s base by starting Hindi commentary two years ago; of the over 300 games it aired last season, 85 had Hindi commentary. While, initially, there were sceptics of the move—partly because of the perceived American nature of the sport and the translation of its nuances into a local language—viewers took to it. “Like kabaddi and cricket, it ensured people understand the game. The tempo of the Hindi commentary has not been bad either,” says Sidhu, part of the experts’ panel on Sony’s show NBA Around the Hoop. Since 2017, all NBA seasons have been aired with Hindi commentary for some games; the 2018-19 season had over 90 million viewers in India, according to Sony.
It’s an investment to operate the Noida academy, explains Gotua, one that’s focussed on elite talent development. “It’s not a monetisation push for us. There are studies that show our brand and product is much more relevant in markets where we have been able to find local talent.”
An Indian playing in the NBA will make a huge difference to the sport’s popularity in the country: Yao Ming (formerly with Houston Rockets) is the most cited example, for his influence in China. From the roughly 450 players in the NBA, about a quarter are from countries outside of the US, which has a direct impact on NBA’s business.
In the past, four Indian players have listed with NBA teams or it’s G-League affiliate. These are Sim Bhullar (Canada-born but of Indian descent, for Toronto Raptors, Raptors 305), Satnam Singh (Dallas Mavericks, Texas Legends), Amjyot Singh (Oklahoma City Blue, Wisconsin Herd) and Palpreet Singh (Long Island Nets). Sanjana Ramesh (Northern Arizona University), Vaishnavi Yadav (Pensacola State), Sunishka Karthik (Woodside Priory), Asmat Taunque (Lawrenceville) and Khushi Dongre (ASA College) are five players from the NBA Academies Women’s Program to play college basketball in the US. Recently, Jagshaanbir Singh committed to attending Golden State Prep, becoming the first male player from the academy to get a scholarship.
While these opportunities are still work in progress, players talk positively about its impact. “My game changed because when I was playing in the US, I realised all that I had been doing earlier was wrong,” says Amjyot Singh (27), from Chandigarh, who has moved back to India, plays for Punjab Steelers, and is the No 1 3X3 player in the rankings of the International Basketball Federation (Fiba). “My whole perspective changed. It enhanced my game so much.” Sanjana Ramesh (18), who hails from Bengaluru and is now based in Arizona, says, “It helped me understand what’s expected from a US college and how much to get in the SATs [for a basketball scholarship].”
“NBA is an aspirational brand. You now have access to it. Can I become an NBA star?
The answer was distant or non-existent five to six years ago. Now, it’s more realistic,” says Yannick Colaco, managing director of sports aggregator FanCode, and former MD of NBA.
Even if the scholarships and opportunities to play abroad do not achieve that goal immediately, players would return to enhance the Indian team, and carry the inspiring tag of having played in the US.
“Culturally, basketball mirrors the swagger and attitude from Bollywood and cricket communities, which is one reason I think it is becoming so popular in India,” says Ranadive.
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(This story appears in the 11 October, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)