Dubai the next stop in NBA's global journey

Jay Asser 00:18 30/05/2017
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  • Crossing borders: San Antonio and Phoenix play in Mexico City. Picture: Getty Images.

    World domination. There is no better way to describe the NBA’s ultimate goal. And where countless supervillains in cliché action movies have failed, the league has thrived to the point where it’s no longer a pipe dream, but an inevitability.

    There is no corner of the globe the NBA doesn’t want to reach and the league’s interest in Dubai highlights just how concerted its effort is to expand.

    In the UAE, basketball may be far down the list of most popular sports, trailing football and cricket by a wide margin. Yet, the NBA is more than just the product on the court and a city like Dubai fits the mould of what the league is looking for in a potential hub.

    Which is why the emirate could very well be hosting an NBA preseason game in two to three years, according to Ben Morel, senior vice president and managing director of Europe, Middle East and Africa.

    The league’s Global Games series has travelled to 20 different countries since the first international contest took place back in 1978 and the UAE could soon join that exclusive club.

    “It would be great to do that in the next two or three years,” Morel said at a media gathering on a trip to Dubai last month. “In terms of our calendar it’s pretty compact, but we’re looking at pre-season, sometime in October.”

    It’s a notion that would make any basketball fan in the region giddy. Dubai has previously hosted high profile events like the exhibition between Duke University and the UAE national team in 2011 and the FIBA U17 World Championship in 2014, but the presence of the NBA would be ground-breaking.

    Bringing an NBA game to Dubai, however, is contingent on the availability of a suitable venue capable of hosting such a massive undertaking and currently, it’s unclear if one exists.

    New heights: Ben Morel in front of the Burj Khalifa.

    New heights: Ben Morel in front of the Burj Khalifa.

    As it stands, Hamdan Sports Complex, which hosted the aforementioned FIBA U17 World Championship, remains the best option, but is also less than ideal. For one, the multi-purpose arena is primarily used for swimming and would require some adaptation in terms of positioning the court and seating.

    While there are workable solutions to that issue, there isn’t one for the venue’s location, which is not the most accessible. Located off Emirates Road, transportation can be a hurdle when it comes to HSC.

    Alternatives are limited right now but one of Dubai’s great qualities, and perhaps its most defining, is its constant development. In what would be very fitting of the city’s identity, an NBA game could be played at a venue that has yet to even be built – or yet to be completed anyway.

    Dubai-based holding company Meraas announced last November that a 20,000-seat indoor arena next to City Walk is in the works. Set up to be the city’s premier entertainment venue, the 500,000 square foot Dubai Arena is expected to be completed by the end of 2018, which conveniently fits Morel’s timeline for bringing a game to the UAE.

    The venue will also be managed by AEG Ogden, part of Anschutz Entertainment Group, which is affiliated with renowned sites like The O2 in London and Staples Center in Los Angeles.

    Morel didn’t confirm if Dubai Arena has indeed been circled by the NBA, but said: “We are actively looking at the opportunities. We do need some arena standards. There are a lot of ongoing projects, so we’re carefully monitoring the situation to be able to do that in the near future.”

    He added: “I think it’s something where basketball belongs, rather than giving it a size restriction. We can be flexible. The NBA is beyond basketball, it’s a show. You’d want to do a game justice and make sure for one night, the people from the region can actually experience what an NBA game is. So we want to make sure we’ve got the capability to reproduce it.”

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    Even if Dubai Arena ends up as the elixir that enables the NBA to come to Dubai, hosting a game can’t be the be-all and end-all.

    As Morel explains, games in the region would be great, but it would only be for one night. The league is thinking bigger than that and is equally focused on bringing the complete NBA experience to fans and creating new followers.

    How does the NBA plan to do that? Grassroots initiatives are at the top of the list and Jr. NBA programmes could be brought over to develop the youth.

    For example, Morel envisions potentially taking 30 schools and affiliating each one with an NBA team and creating a mini tournament to both educate and grow the love of the game.

    On the entertainment side, outdoor spaces and malls in Dubai could host NBA festivals or zones to inspire more engagement and hand-on experiences.

    At the end of the day though, the NBA’s biggest play to draw an international audience has been, and will continue to be, through the use of technology.

    Compared to every major sporting league worldwide, the NBA has been at the forefront for offering digital content, from social media to YouTube and everything in between.

    But this past season, the league reached new heights by offering a ‘mobile view’ for League Pass and games in virtual reality. With how popular technology is in Dubai, as well as the omnipresence of mobile phones, the new features are sure to be loved in the region.

    “It’s the start of VR, but we believe basketball has a huge opportunity there because we’ve got the best seats in the world of sports with our courtside seats,” Morel said.

    “If you can replicate that courtside seat experience, whether you’re in Latin America, the US, Dubai or China and you’re sitting on your sofa and saying ‘What are we doing tonight, this morning or this afternoon? Let’s be at the Staples Center or Madison Square Garden.’ This is where it’s all

    NBA brand stores are also on the way. The Middle East’s first store will arrive in Qatar by the end of the year, followed by one in Dubai. A store may have already opened in the region had it not been for the league’s apparel partnership transitioning from Adidas to Nike for next season, but the wait should be well worth it considering the Swoosh’s presence in the emirates.

    “I know Dubai is a very, very important market for Nike specifically and basketball is one of the big global marketplaces for them, so expect some strong NBA Nike activity in this area,” Morel said.

    It all sounds promising, but Dubai’s population and culture make it a unique challenge for the NBA. Fortunately, the league appears up to the task and while the region will require some trial and error, the NBA’s appetite to be a global entity is too much of a driving force.

    “We have an enormous following in the Middle East, but we’re not doing enough… It’s an area of the world where I think we should be doing more,” said NBA commissioner Adam Silver.

    “I’d say we just haven’t figured out a way to crack the market yet. But I think that there’s a lot more that we can and will do there.”