Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Basketball can be India's No 2 sport after cricket: Yannick Colaco

By helping kids learn how to dribble, and localising the content around the sport, NBA hopes to replicate its China success in India

Published: Jun 9, 2017 05:52:51 PM IST
Updated: May 4, 2022 03:12:28 PM IST

Basketball can be India's No 2 sport after cricket: Yannick Colaco
[CAPTION]NBA India’s Managing Director Yannick Colaco Image: Mexy Xavier[/CAPTION]
There’s a democratisation of sport going on in India — with sports beyond cricket gaining loyal fans (and customers). In this environment, NBA India – the local arm of America’s National Basketball Association – has been ramping up efforts to try and carve out a space for itself, modelling their work here after their successful expansion into China. But will their efforts help to bolster basketball’s popularity in a country obsessed with cricket?

NBA India’s Managing Director Yannick Colaco hopes so. In an interview with Forbes India, Colaco talks about the world’s fifth-largest sporting league’s (by revenue) investments in India, which include the NBA’s traditional global revenue streams of media and merchandising, as well as grassroots youth programmes. NBA apparel can now be found in over 600 stores across the country, live games are broadcast on Sony SIX, and last month, the NBA opened an elite basketball training academy to groom potential future talent. At the most basic level, the NBA has helped bring basketball classes to schools in 19 cities through their Jr NBA (Junior NBA) programme.

Though it may be a long shot, this global league synonymous with icons such as Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, is hoping to score a slam dunk in India.
Edited excerpts:    

Do you think basketball will ever be as popular as cricket?
(Laughs) That’s a great question. I can be extremely honest and say that we believe cricket will be the number one sport in the foreseeable future in this country. But we believe that basketball has a tremendous opportunity to be a strong number two sport. We think that in the mid- to long-term that’s something that can be achieved, so that’s what we’re gunning for. I think we’re trending the right way.

Of all the areas you’re investing in—selling merchandise, increasing viewership, and promoting the sport at the grassroots level, where have you seen the most growth?
It all comes down to growing basketball. While the grassroots has more kids playing basketball, research consistently shows that if you play the game when you are young, the chances of you actually following it as you grow older increase tremendously. The other part of it is actually improving access to the game, whether it’s through well distributed linear TV, digital reach, access to merchandise, or bringing NBA superstars over, that’s all something we are willing to do to supplement the grassroots level. We’ve had players like Chris Bosh, Ron Harper, Chris Grant, Muggsy Bogues (come to India)... we’re going to have Kevin Durant come here in a few weeks.
We are seeing consistent growth in everything. In TV viewership, we’re consistently clocking high double digit percentage growth year-on-year, over the last five years. We are now showing two live games a day during the regular season on TV, which translates to 14 games live a week, back to back in the morning. We’re doing more and more things to be relevant to fans in India. With our partner Sony SIX, every Sunday, we have a wrap-around show, which is shot in a studio in Mumbai. It has local hosts and celebrity guests talk about the game and keep it more relevant [to Indian audiences], speaking in Hindi and English. We continue to do new things. This year for the finals, we are actually doing Hindi commentary.
How much will the NBA be investing in India?
We don’t give exact numbers, but India is a priority market. We believe India can be the next China for us. India is a young nation. The youth is tech-savvy, aspirational, and there’s a large demand for a global entertainment product. So we see a big opportunity in India. Our investment in talent development and resources is primarily focussed on growing the game of basketball. We recently launched the NBA Academy in India, an elite training school. And for the NBA, the Academy is our most significant investment ever in development of athletes internationally.
In terms of viewership of the games, which platforms have been most successful?
We try to make sure we have the largest distribution, but also try to make sure that our platforms are complementary rather than cannibalistic. Our largest chunk of live content is on TV. We also have this subscription network called League Pass, but that’s more niche. So TV is our largest distribution for live games. Social media is by far the most significant distribution platform for us for what we call ‘snackable’ content–dunks of the day, bloopers of the day, things like that. Just on Facebook, we have 7 million people following the NBA pages from India of which 4.8 million are under the age of 24.

Have you worked with the UBA (United Basketball Alliance of India) league?
Not at all. The UBA Pro league, from what we understand, is a private competition. First of all, we believe that any form of competition in this country, properly run, is good for basketball. The one thing that we encourage people to do is work within the ecosystem with the right stakeholders such as federations like FIBA (International Basketball Federation), and make sure these competitions have the right kind of facilities for functions like coaching and refereeing. I think the UBA hasn’t got that as yet. But we would love to see competition for basketball across the country because it’s good for the sport. But again I think it needs to be done in conjunction with FIBA and BFI (Basketball Federation of India). 
On his recent visit to India, Denver Nuggets player Kenneth Faried observed lack of basketball facilities around the country. Is the NBA doing anything to address this?
I think there are two pieces to that. One of the great things about basketball is unlike most complicated sports, basketball is relatively infrastructure light. You need a flat surface, a hoop and ball and you can play at some level. You can play alone, you can play one-on-one, two-on-two, so on. So the facility to play at a basic level is not very complicated. That exists. But there are a limited number of indoor courts in the country. We’ve been mapping the number of courts across cities and we see [the outdoor courts] do exist to a large extent. We believe the need of the hour is to maximise utilisation of those facilities so that their maintenance becomes a priority. That’s why we’re setting up these grassroots programmes, to make sure they’re potential is maximised.

So now that you have the Academy, the NBA Schools, and Jr NBA, what’s the next plan for NBA in India?
We will continue to scale up. Content is obviously important, not only by way of greater access to fans, but also by packaging it in a way that is more relevant to the local audience. This is where Hindi commentary comes in and we have some significant partnerships with digital partners like AIB (All India Bakchod) and TVF (The Viral Fever) as well. This is a priority market. We’re here to stay, and we know we have a long-term perspective on the market.