NBA shoots for Indian market

The NBA's Jr. NBA program in India numbers 750,000 students and counting.
The NBA's Jr. NBA program in India numbers 750,000 students and counting.

At a media roundtable hosted by the league in Mumbai, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver described India as basketball's next frontier

MUMBAI — The National Basketball Association (NBA) hosted a media roundtable here on Wednesday to discuss the sport’s prospects in India. At the event, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver indicated a clear possibility of bringing exhibitions or regular season games as the sport develops.

In addition to Silver, the hosting panel included Vivek Ranadive, owner of the Sacramento Kings, and Yannick Colaco, MD of NBA India, which is charged with cultivating interest in basketball here.

Talking about the loyalty fans might show to players or clubs, Ranadive spoke about how basketball engenders a powerful following. Silver added by saying, "We’re thrilled that people are fans of a particular player and follow their careers regardless of the team they play for. We recognize that over time if we need to grow the fan base we need to create more knowledgeable fans. We’re happy to take fans because they connect with a particular city or team or individual."

Ranadive and Silver spoke about differences between the markets in India and China (which already has a tradition of exhibition games). Silver said he felt India is the next frontier for the NBA, seeing as how the country has a very young population. Referring to some of the work the NBA is doing with the Reliance Foundation, he added that the league was able to reach its goal of introducing the game to 1 million people a full year ahead of its three-year plan.

Silver mentioned the prospect of bringing a few NBA games to India. He said that, "We would love to bring a few exhibitions or regular season games as the sport develops."

Silver and Ranadive answered questions about whether or not Indian audiences were ready for a long-format sport such as basketball (as each season runs for eight months) and city-based franchises. According to Silver, this was something the NBA has looked at. Terming it as the ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum, he said, "Do we do a grassroots approach and develop the sport, or do we come in over the top with this incredible product? We have to find the right balance, we want to be successful. … [W]hen we look at the opportunity in a market like India, we have to strike the right balance between how fast we want to go and how fast we want to grow and that’s part of why we are here. In part, this is a fact finding mission."

Ranadive added, "We’ve seen a dramatic increase in numbers both in the United States and outside the States. There’s a huge appetite for basketball. If we bring it to India, we’ll have to see if it has to be a shorter format and what are the things we can do. I was talking to commissioner Silver about this and we were talking about a ‘Monsoon Madness’ — a more compressed version of ‘March Madness’ and a more exciting format. But we can certainly see how it plays out in other markets and how much we can innovate."

The commissioner then spoke about the biggest issue facing Indian audiences when it came to consuming basketball: the time difference between India and the United States. In the U.S., the NBA broadcasts during prime time, while in India, live telecast takes place in the early hours of the morning. Silver noted that this issue was something the league was looking into as it recognized that the American audience forms only a small part of the global viewing audience. He acknowledged that at some point the league would have to go to the owners and ask them what they thought of playing a morning game once a month as part of growing the game. Silver said he is positive the teams would agree. On the matter of the NBA’s intentions for operating in India and the possibility of an Indian league, Silver expressed that this was something the league continued to look at and that it isn’t inconsistent with having the NBA (played in the US and Canada) followed here at the same time.

Yannick Colaco spoke to Campaign India about promoting the NBA in India, engaging through the digital platform and delivering localised content.

The opening day of this season saw players from 37 countries, and none of them are from Asia. Yet the NBA is looking to market itself in these regions. Why?

We’ve had an office in China for years now. Scott Levy, who’s the head of Asia, has his office in Hong Kong. We look at investing and growing the game of basketball. Between India and China, we’ve gotten a market of about 2.6 billion people and have growing economies. India itself is a growing market as an economy. 65 percent of our population is under the age of 35. Over 300 million are under the age of 18. We’re a young population; the game of basketball is a very young, fun game; and that goes well with our youth, who are our target audience. This is the biggest youth market in the world, so it is very important to get our brand here.

Basketball is really popular on the state level but rarely gets the national coverage viz broadcasting and media. Are you looking to change that? What is being done to promote NBA in India? How are you'll reaching the youngsters?

We have this ‘Junior NBA’ program that is very focused on grassroots development. It’s something we do with the Reliance Foundation. We have over 100 colleges and schools who are part of the grass root program, and it’s about getting people to bounce balls. We have over a million kids involved in this program already. We’ve got ‘NBA Jam’, which is a three-on-three basketball festival and this takes place across sixteen cities in India. So, we’re doing a lot of national events to increase the participation of young boys and girls.

We also collaborate with the Basketball Federation of India and provide them with all the assistance they need. The Federation’s job is to govern the game and we are happy to help out in ways that include investing in properties like the Jam and Junior NBA.

Along with the factor of it being a sport, NBA is associated as a great entertainment package in the USA. How do you plan to deliver such a product in India and the rest of the world?

Our primary product is the NBA game. We are showing the product here and this includes the lifestyle, the dunks, the celebrity and the buzzer beaters. Globally, less than two per cent of our fans have the opportunity to watch our games in an NBA arena, which is why we try and create these experiences that give them to opportunity to experience some part of the game. We bring legends to India. We keep trying to find ways to bring experiences but our primary product will remain our content which is the live games or the packaged games.

Are audiences in India and the rest of Asia engaged with NBA?

Using platforms like television, digital and social media, our fans, 98 percent of whom will never get the chance to witness the games live, can engage and follow the sport and its personalities like Le Bron James and Kobe Bryant. They can also visit and buy merchandise. There are a lot of touch points for the product.

Are Indian audiences ready for the NBA?

I think we are ready. The NBA on television is the fastest growing sport in India in terms of viewership. Our audience viewership has grown 300 per cent from last year, the average viewership is up 65 percent. Last year, more the 70 million people sampled the NBA as a product, which is phenomenal.

Comparing it to [soccer], we obviously stand behind the English Premier League, but, we are bigger than the La Liga and this is despite the fact that our product doesn’t have the best time slot.

We’re constantly looking to grow our customer base. We have an eight-month-long season and we’re going to do a lot of fun stuff for the audience along that time.

Where do you see the NBA by the end of the next season?

We want to keep growing in triple digits on our television ratings. We want to continue growing the participation of the audience and the game of basketball. We want to give audiences greater access and give them what they want in terms of localized content on the right platforms. At the end of the day, our game is for the fans, and we want to deliver the best experience for them.

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