Internationalizing the National Basketball Association

Basketball has been internationalized but the NBA, aside from the lone Canada-based Raptors, still has not. Unlike the NFL where owners are making money hand-over-fist, more than half of NBA owners lost money last year, according to a recent Forbes article. This fact alone means owners, in the midst of a player lockout, will take a hard-stance on the revenue split agreement with the NBA Players Association. Because financial books are not available for public consumption, no one knows for sure which teams are the least profitable. Websites like Ranker and Forbes suggest the Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana Pacers, New Orleans Hornets and Charlotte Bobcats are at the bottom of that list. Even with redistributed revenue sharing and other player give-backs that will come with the next labor agreement, these teams will likely remain unprofitable. In 1992 the Dream Team helped internationalize basketball but, aside from the Raptors and failed Vancouver Grizzlies experiment, the NBA remains a league with no international representation. It’s time Commissioner David Stern and the NBA take the next step and relocate some of these teams to non-Canadian, international markets.

Like the NFL, the NBA has experimented with regular season games in non-US cities. In the early 1990s a handful of basketball games were played in Japan. And this past season, London’s O2 Arena hosted the Nets and Raptors. The next evolution is to move half-a-dozen financially faltering teams to major cities in Europe and Asia. This bold move would strengthen the NBA brand, allow more owners to turn a profit and energize the NBA fan base.

Realignment in the Western Conference would move teams currently established in Minnesota, New Orleans and Memphis to major Asian markets like Shanghai, Beijing and Tokyo. And realignment in the Eastern Conference would move the Bucks, Pacers and Bobcats to major European markets in England, Spain and Italy. Having the Asia-based teams in the Western Conference and European-based teams in the Eastern Conference makes travel a little more feasible. Obviously, scheduling and travel would prove to be a challenge but, if it can be worked out, it would be a beneficial change. US-based teams would have to take extended road trips to Europe and Asia where they would play multiple games against teams in those continents. Likewise, those international teams would need to take longer trips through North America to complete large portions of their schedules. These international-based teams would operate under the same rules as US-based teams. The new teams would participate in the NBA draft and follow the same salary cap and other league rules as current teams. Basketball fans around the world already follow major US teams like the Lakers, Bulls and Heat. Having teams in large global markets where basketball is already popular would grow the fan base even more.

As with any change, there are negatives to making the move. Critics will point out that travel is too expensive. I believe that establishing revenue-generating, instead of revenue-losing, teams will make up for the extra cost. New teams will quickly contribute to the shared revenue pot and financially profitable teams will feel less of the burden to carry the league. Those same critics will claim that TV and radio broadcast rights will be too complicated in foreign markets. Broadcast rights will never be easy to negotiate but will be worked out. Local media companies will broadcast local games and national games will still be seen on ABC, ESPN and TNT. If it can be worked out in Toronto, it can be worked out in other cities too. Those against the internationalization of the NBA will claim superstars will not sign with the new clubs because they’ll be out of the spotlight. Being removed from the spotlight means fewer endorsement opportunities and less off-the-court income. I say that top players already avoid markets like Milwaukee and Minnesota and prefer to play in big cities. Cities like Beijing, Tokyo, London and Madrid are all considered major world cities. If they are truly talented and personable, those players will still receive endorsements in the US and could expect to receive additional opportunities in those other countries.

Since he became the commissioner in 1984, David Stern has helped bring basketball to other countries around the world. International exhibition games and, more recently, regular season games have been successful. Stern claims major labor agreement changes are necessary to help current teams become profitable. He knows more than most that many of these small market teams won’t become profitable, even with revenue reform. It is time he works with current owners and the NBA Players Association to evolve the sport and further internationalize the NBA.

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