NBA's growth shows promise to Middle East

Jay Asser 15:55 19/01/2017
Lift-off: NBA is moving to new heights.

It may just be an annual trip across the pond at the moment, but the NBA’s staging of the Global Games in London continues to reflect the league’s ever-growing presence and popularity, as well as its future potential.

The Denver Nuggets and Indiana Pacers played the seventh regular season game in London in league history last week and while the contest itself was lacklustre, the entire experience for the players, fans and city appeared to be another positive step in globalising the NBA.

I had the good fortune of getting a first-hand look in London, both leading up to the game and at O2 Arena. Here are my impressions from the experience…

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FEASIBILITY FOR THE TEAMS

An NBA season, of course, has 82 regular season games in its calendar. That roughly translates to teams playing every second or third day. On top of that, more than half the league makes the playoffs, which means the teams that do get in can play anywhere from an additional four to 28 games. Basically, NBA players earn their paychecks with the minutes they put on the court.

The length of the season and scheduling have been topics of discussion for some time now, with many feeling there are too many games being played in a short amount of days, or too many games, period. As coaches have gained a greater appreciation for keeping players fresh to avoid wear and tear and potential injuries, we’ve seen more and more players sitting out for rest in situations like the second night of a back-to-back.

Travel only exacerbates the effect of fatigue, which is why asking teams to take double-digit-hour flights to a foreign country during the season sounds, in a vacuum, like it would only compound the issue.

But the NBA have naturally been smart with how they’ve handled the scheduling, with both the Nuggets and Pacers given five days off before the London game and four days off after. The type of rest can otherwise only be found during the All-Star break, so there’s plenty of value for the teams involved.

The layoff also affords teams valuable practice time, which is scarce in the compact regular season. It’s a good opportunity for coaches to mix things up or finally install something new they didn’t have time to work in before.

The only downside of having so many days off, which might have affected Indiana in their loss to Denver, is the potential loss of rhythm. The Pacers had won fight straight before getting throttled in London, but then again the trip might have given the Nuggets, who had lost five in a row heading overseas, a chance to properly regroup.

Regardless, it’s hard to argue the trip as a whole isn’t a net gain for the teams involved as additional rest is as good as gold during the season.

@pacers running a clinic for @jrnba, with drills for school children and special needs kids at O2 Arena

A video posted by Sport360 (@sport360) on

THE PLAYERS’ INTEREST

Maybe a lot of it was lip service, but I genuinely felt like all of the Nuggets and Pacers players who were asked about being in London were honest in giving positive responses.

It may seem obvious for the players who get to experience a different city than the ones they’re so used to from the constant travel, but it’s also not uncommon for some players to feel like it’s messing up their routine or putting them too far out of their comfort zone.

I got no sense of that being around the Nuggets and Pacers, with Paul George saying he was eager to try the local fish and chips, Myles Turner sightseeing famous London landmarks, and Nikola Jokic and Danilo Gallinari, who hail from Serbia and Italy respectively, enjoying being back (and playing really well) on European soil.

George, who was easily the brightest star on either team, really stood out with his enthusiasm. He not only mentioned how essential it is from an individual standpoint to grow his brand in an international market, but went as far as releasing his first signature shoe, the Nike PG1, during the trip. There was undoubtedly a business element to capitalising on the visibility he was afforded by being in London, but the shoe release was proof of how much he embraced the experience.

FANS’ INTEREST

As great as it is for the teams and players to buy in, the entire thing can only truly work if the fans are interested. In London, that wasn’t an issue in the slightest.

First off, the tickets for the game sold out within an hour when they were put on the market, and the fans showed up in full force to pack the O2 Arena with a sell-out crowd of 18,689.

I get it. Football (or should I say soccer) reigns supreme in the UK by a mile. Cricket has deep roots as well. So yes, basketball isn’t going to topple those two sports in popularity anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a strong contingent of followers.

For one, it’s never been easier to keep up with the NBA from anywhere in the world. I’m not even talking about the general advancement in technology, but rather the brilliant job the league has done in marketing and promoting itself. From social media, to international broadcasting rights, to League Pass and everything in between, the NBA is fantastic at making their content available to all. Never has it been less necessary to watch games live in person to get the NBA experience.

Speaking to London specifically, there are ton of expats that help make up an extremely diverse population and culture. The city is also one of the fashion capitals of the world and basketball very much has strong hold in fashion and lifestyle. I saw plenty of fans, both around London and in O2 Arena, who were covered in basketball-style attire – various jerseys and shoes especially.

At the game, the energy and thirst for any excitement was palpable. The crowd was always ready to cheer highlight plays, even later into the game when the score started slanting heavily in Denver’s favour. They unsurprisingly cheered loudest for George and Gallinari, but also exploded after a dunk by Emmanuel Mudiay and an alley-oop to Kenneth Faried.

@turner_myles gives the people what they want: a dunk!

A video posted by Sport360 (@sport360) on

As mentioned, the game itself wasn’t really competitive and the blowout certainly robbed the fans from getting a taste of pressure-packed moments, but at least they were treated to plenty of points. The 140 put up by the Nuggets was fun to watch, even if it came as a result of shoddy, uninspired defence by Indiana.

Turner unfortunately didn’t factor in much, but Jokic’s amazing playmaking and versatility more than made up for it as he showcased the cool skills that have started to become more normal during the big man revolution.

As far as the fanfare around the game, it was nice to see celebrities and famous footballers sit courtside to take in the action, even if the spotlight on them too often took away from the product on the court. But it was certainly a hot ticket and THE show in town for that night. Even my black cab driver earlier in the day was well aware that the game was taking place at O2 Arena that night.

The entertainment during timeouts and stoppages in play wasn’t anything a regular NBA goer wouldn’t be used to, but it was effective at keeping the fans engaged and buzzing. There were plenty of contests to take part in, like trivia and shooting challenges, and the NBA smartly offered up prizes of League Pass subscriptions for many of them.

O2 ARENA

The multi-purpose indoor facility located in North Greenwhich is already known for housing massive events like the Summer Olympics, but seeing it for the first time, I was surprised by just how versatile it is.

The arena itself can hold up to 20,000 people and didn’t look much different than other NBA stomping grounds I’ve watched games in. It more than did the job during the game, both with the front-and-centre display, as well as the behind-the-curtain areas like the press conference room and media work room.

What I really enjoyed about O2 Arena though, is the outer area consisting of restaurants, bars and shops. It was still covered by the dome, but one of my only gripes about the venue was that it still felt as if you were outdoors, just without the rain coming down. I’m sure it feels more pleasant during the warmer seasons, but during the winter months when the NBA season is running, it’s not ideal to be that cold in what is otherwise an awesome hangout scene.

Still, you can pop into any one of the dozens of joints to grab a bite to eat or just be social. There’s even a cinema, so it really is a place where you can go even if there’s no event going on.

During the game, there was still some construction being done to the place which might have caused a bit of inconvenience for fans, but for the most part, O2 Arena was one of the most enjoyable parts of the experience.

It also helps there’s the very useful North Greenwhich station for the Underground in walking distance, which helped us avoid an hour and 30-minute trip during rush hour in favour of a 30-minute ride on the public transportation.

FUTURE FRANCHISES?

While NBA commissioner Adam Silver said Mexico is the league’s most important foreign market right now, the United Kingdom is easily second and though there aren’t immediate plans for expansion into those regions, it’s not unrealistic to think one or both areas could have their own team in the future.

There are certainly American cities near the top of the queue, like Seattle, but with the NBA’s dedication to reaching as many corners of the globe as possible, there’s all the reason in the world to think that if there’s a discernible path for an international franchise, the league will surely explore it.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR THE UAE?

How does all of this matter to the UAE? Well, maybe more than you think.

I got the chance to ask Silver at his pre-game press conference about the league’s current presence in the Middle and future prospects in the region, and this was his answer:

“Well, we have an enormous following in the Middle East, but we’re not doing enough. In fact, we’ve used the few days that we’re here in London. I know Mark Tatum, our deputy commissioner, has been in several days of meetings with Middle Eastern authorities, whether they be sports bureaus, broadcasters, other parties in the Middle East. Discussions have ranged from everything from Jr NBA programs to holding actual games in the Middle East. It’s an area of the world where I think we should be doing more.

“We know from all of the data that we see in terms of social media and viewership that there is enormous interest in the game in the Middle East. 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.”

Unpacking that, Silver is basically saying the league is interested in being more involved in the Middle East, but is in the process of figuring out how exactly to do that. It’s not an easy job by any means, considering the region’s culture, population and pecking order of sports.

With that said, the NBA’s aforementioned interest in spreading the game as far as possible, coupled with what potential there is in the Middle East, means promising signs for the UAE especially.

Dubai is near the top of the list when it comes to major cities in the Middle East that have both the appetite to host big sporting events and the infrastructure. Look no further than the upcoming Dubai Arena, set to be completed in two years as a state-of-the-art, all-purpose facility nestled next to City Walk that will be able to seat 20,000 people, as proof that Dubai can do an NBA game justice.

It may take a few years at least, but the UAE is already in a much better position to host an NBA game than it was a decade or even five years ago.

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