Kathakali has been a journalist for a decade and a half, working previously with The Telegraph and Times of India. An MA in political science and a Chevening Fellow, she writes on various themes--the business of sports, pop culture, startups, innovation--and co-produces the video series, From the Field. She is also part of the desk, editing, rewriting and putting the print edition to bed. Kathakali is a sports nut and collects autographs as a hobby. She enjoys travelling and music, and you'll often find her humming completely out of tune.
NBA teams Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings play a pre-season game at the NSCI Dome in Mumbai in 2019 Image: Francis Mascarenhas / Reuters
Q. NBA India launched in 2011. What are the key milestones of the journey till now? Let me start with everything we've been doing in grassroots basketball. We're about to kick off our 10th year of the Reliance Foundation Junior NBA programme and that's been a core tenant of our strategy in India. It all starts with kids playing and consuming basketball in some way. In year 10, that programming has done that in a big way for us.
On the viewership side, we reached almost 100 million viewers on our media platforms across Viacom and Prasar Bharti. We’ve signed up Ranveer Singh as our brand ambassador.
We played our first games in India in 2019, when the Pacers and the Kings came to play their pre-season games. That was an exciting part of the journey. And, going forward, we're just trying to do more of those things: Expose kids to basketball, and build our presence and brand in this country.
Q. India is predominantly a cricket country. What sort of foray do you see basketball making in the next five years? Cricket’s more like a religion than a sport in India, and we don't see ourselves competing with it. Everything that we're seeing right now is encouraging when it comes to interest in sport and, for us, the more interest in sport, the better for basketball.
The excitement and interest in cricket are great for us. We don't see it as a sort of, “if cricket takes another kid, they can't play basketball”. Most kids, these days, play more than one sport. Our ambition is to be the number two sport in India. One of the things we're encouraged about is when you talk to kids that are in school, a lot of them say to us, “I don't want to necessarily just play cricket. Cricket is my parents' sport. I want to play something faster.”
When it comes to participation, we're really encouraged. It's going to take us more time to see that flow through to some of our commercial businesses, viewership, and other elements. On the social media side, though, we’ve seen really strong engagement and following. We currently have a community of more than 3.6 million fans who follow our local social media channels that saw a 100 percent increase in engagement from the 2020-21 season and a 245 percent increase in followers from the previous season.
We've recently launched our NBA Style platform to try and broaden our appeal to audiences—that handle has clocked about 140,000 followers in just about a year. So, the NBA brand isn’t just about everything happening on the court; it resonates with what people do off the court as well.
Q. What are the principal sources of revenue for NBA India? There are a few elements to the commercial operations, but it's not the only reason we're in the country. Obviously, media and media rights are an area of commercials for us. We have partnered with Prasar Bharti and Viacom18, and we air our games on their various linear and digital platforms, on Voot and JioCinema. In addition to the games, we also have Loco, a live gaming and streaming platform, which airs our 2K League games.
Outside of the media, we have 22 partners in the country; some of them are, of course, our global partners that activate in India. We recently signed a multi-year deal with Reliance Retail that will get our licenced products into their online and offline stores.
We don’t go through the value of these deals publicly, but we are really happy with the interest in the NBA brand.
Rajah Chaudhry, head of strategy, Asia Pac and country Head, India, at the National Basketball Association (NBA)
Q. How have you seen viewership increase over the years? For the last season, we had close to 100 million in viewership across our media platforms. Right now, we’re on track to surpass that this year. Our overall cumulative viewership is 25 percent higher compared to last season for the same time period.
We don't necessarily compete with cricket—there are much bigger numbers for cricket. But we're encouraged by the fact that, historically, there was only one TV in the household where people would mostly watch cricket. With the digital revolution, one can watch on their phone or any other device. It brings more variety to the household in terms of consumption.
Q. What sort of fillip has viewership got after the Kings and the Pacers came and played their pre-season games in 2019? I wouldn't say it was a big fillip. It’s just part of the journey. It was an exciting milestone for us to have teams in the market and the excitement that it brings. We had over four million viewers of that game in the country. But games will come and games will go. It’s more about sustainability of watching regular season playoffs. The games were great milestones, but I don't necessarily see that as some kind of step-change moment.
Q. Are there going to be more NBA teams coming to India anytime soon? We would certainly hope to do so in future although nothing is planned right now. One of the challenges we have is infrastructure. It was quite challenging when we played the games in 2019. One of the things we would love to see, in order to play more games in India, is better infrastructure and purpose-built venues for NBA-standard games.
Q. What are your key outreach strategies in India? Our biggest outreach programme is around our Reliance Foundation Junior NBA programme over the course of nearly 10 years, through which we've reached over 11 million kids. We're continuing to build on that.
But on top of that, the ambition is to expose kids to basketball in schools—we have NBA basketball schools which we run with our partner IOT and they're expanding their presence. These are after-school programmes for kids who want to play more. Then we have the ACG-Jump programme, our national elite talent development scheme. We are trying to build a pyramid for kids to come through, going from exposure to talent scouting.
Q. NBA saw a massive growth in business and viewership in China. Do you have key takeaways from the China model that you would like to implement in India? The biggest learning we took out of China is what I was just describing as the two major pillars of our strategy. One is getting kids exposed to basketball. That was a little easier in China because basketball has been probably a very popular sport in China for many decades. But NBA still had to do its work to make sure there were enough grassroots development programmes in place. We’re trying to take that same playbook, we just have a lot more to do in India because basketball hasn't necessarily been a core native sport here.
The other one is just making sure we have games on TV or any media platform. The time zone is a little trickier for us in India, for live game viewership. But with digital platforms, it makes it a little bit easier because you don't have to watch a game live anymore.
Our own NBA League pass allows people to watch at their own leisure, and enables them to watch as many games as they like. India is among the top five markets outside the US and China when it comes to the NBA League Pass subscriptions, and has seen a 12 percent year-on-year rise.