Hoop dreams: How the NBA inspires young Asians

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In a football-mad region, the American basketball league is playing a long game to woo young people with mobile games, accessible and affordable content and on-the-ground participation

JAKARTA - "To expect a 16-year old Indonesian kid to sit in front of a television for two and a half hours is unrealistic, and we are well aware of it," says Scott Levy, the managing director of NBA Asia. "We speak to them in the language they understand, as engaging with Asia’s youth is our key objective."

Asia has been a big part of NBA’s export strategy ever since the NBA commissioner, David Stern, first arrived in China in the late 1980s and sniffed an enormous opportunity. He made the right moves to ensure a long-lasting presence in the region. While China has become NBA’s largest international market and continues to grow steadily, it is the developing markets of Southeast Asia that the NBA chiefs have been eyeing in the last decade or so.

"With over 600 million people in Southeast Asia that boast of an expanding middle class, rising disposable incomes and a young median age, it is a region that we see a great fit with," Levy says. "Young people tend to like basketball as it is a fast-paced game; our athletes are charismatic, active in social media and music and are gamers—all the things that appeal to the target audience."

Levy, who came in seven years ago, is responsible for everything in Asia outside of Greater China and India, including New Zealand and Australia. "We have markets in different stages of basketball evolution on our plate, and there is a unique fan base and thus, customised strategy for each country."

For instance, tapping into Indonesia’s love affair with social media, the league engages through content specially curated and locally developed for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and now Line Indonesia. "The programming is in Bahasa Indonesia, with a lot more emphasis on music as that’s what the audience connects best with," Levy says. "The local Line account in Indonesia amassed more than 1 million fans in just over three months."

Charlotte Hornets' player Marvin Williams schools a young player during a recent final stage of the
Junior NBA Indonesia programme, presented by Frisian Flag. See more photos of this event.

There are additional resources invested in form of specialised cameras in the arenas that shoot content for mobiles. "When our consumers in Southeast Asia experience content on mobile, they are not looking at a wide-angle shot," Levy says. "When the [Golden State] Warriors' [Stephen] Curry makes a move, he is on full screen, and they can follow the move from different angles."

Starting next season, Indonesia will see the most comprehensive NBA coverage ever, across every medium. In addition to games that will air on free TV, the league will introduce 'sachet' offerings on NBA League Pass, its over-the-top platform. These will allow consumers to access NBA content on a daily basis at low prices. 

"Our key challenge in Asia has been the accessibility of our product," Levy says. "We have been working tirelessly to put pieces in place and achieve localization in delivery, localization in communication and localization in payment. With the start of the next season, you will be able to consume our product any way you want and anywhere you want."

Further, NBA Asia is investing in tons of programming through various digital outlets across the popular genres of music, fashion and technology. "Our aim is to touch both the existing NBA consumers as well as new fans who may have other passions, but hold a potential to get interested in basketball too," Levy says. "It is a long-term plan."

Games about the game

The league has entered into an alliance with Square Enix, a leading global gaming company that has made its maiden foray into sports through NBA. That first offering is a car battle game that does not require basketball expertise, but instead educates gamers about who the players are, the different skill sets used in the game and other factors as they go along. "Like social and mobile, gaming is a platform where a lot of our potential fans spend a lot of their time and thus, it makes it an incredible tie-in for us," Levy says.

Besides Square Enix, NBA Asia has two more local mobile gaming partnerships: Blue Print (developer of NBA Dream Team) and Marvelous (developer of NBA Clutch Time). NBA Dream Team is available in Japan, while NBA Clutch Time is available in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Philippines is different from the other Southeast Asian markets given the maturity of the NBA there, where basketball is the undisputed No. 1 sport.

"Looking at our major business lines of media, sponsorships, events and merchandising in the last three years, the interest in the NBA has been growing very fast and in the right direction," says Levy.

Besides the media partners that carry content through digital platforms, NBA programming is available on local broadcasters such as StarHub in Singapore, Astro in Malaysia and True Visions in Thailand. In Philippines, ABS-CBN, Fox Sports, and Solar air more than 30 games per week, while Sony SIX airs 14 games a week in India. 

NBA Clutch Time

How tough has it been for NBA to convince traditional media owners in countries such as Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam to put their money on anything else but the top selling property, the English Premier League?

"Today, if you want to own youth, basketball is the sport," Levy contends. "Football may be big, but it has also become extremely crowded. There are too many leagues, too many teams, too many countries doing the same thing, and it has become tough to differentiate yourself within the space." This holds true for both media owners and advertisers, he adds.

"On the other hand, if you want to have a conversation about basketball, you only have it with us," Levy continues. "Further, we are propagating a much bigger message than just the NBA. We are promoting an active and a healthy lifestyle, and that is non-negotiable. A lot of advertisers are finding value in that proposition."

Activity activation

The NBA’s key marketing partners in the region include FrieslandCampina, CloudFone, Globe Telecom and Tahir Foundation. The organisation recently inked a multi-year marketing partnership with Panasonic in the Philippines, thus integrating the consumer-electronics major into its broadcasts and grassroots events in the Philippines.

"I firmly believe that if you play a sport in your youth, you are more likely to follow that sport when older. Given how young everyone is in Southeast Asia, it is upon us to expose as many youngsters as we can to the true spirit of the basketball," Levy says.

The Junior NBA, the league’s global youth basketball participation program for boys and girls, was launched in Asia three years back. It teaches the fundamental skills as well as the core values of the game at the grassroots level in an effort to help grow and improve the youth basketball experience for players, coaches and parents.

It is currently being conducted across Southeast Asia in Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. To date, the program has reached more than 1.5 million kids, parents and coaches across Southeast Asia through camps, clinics, and NBA Cares community outreach activities and aims to reach five million kids by 2020.

"Even if the participant doesn’t pick up basketball later, but learns the importance of sport and being fit through this program, we have made a new fan," Levy says.


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