'There’s a lot of people bouncing the ball'
by Simon Ward
The NBA wants to stage more regular season games in Europe, but for now believes the annual showcase in London gives it the necessary direct presence in that market, and provides a focus for coverage throughout the year on TV and social media. Author
8th December 2017, 09:36

Basketball’s top league will have a regular season game in the UK capital for the eighth successive year in January when the Boston Celtics take on the Philadelphia 76ers, and tickets again sold out rapidly when they went on sale in October.

The contest between two of the NBA’s most ‘storied’ franchises and the support of Nike, the league’s new kit supplier, which is acting as presenting sponsor, should ensure that the NBA London Game 2018 has added significance.

While basketball remains a minority sport in the UK, especially compared with continental Europe, participation among young people is high, and the NBA appeals to that demographic in other areas, notably through its links to entertainment and fashion.

Ben Morel, senior vice-president and managing director of the NBA for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, claims the London Game serves a purpose in providing a regular focal point for the league’s activity in the region.

" It's a key platform for our partners who activate around the game, and across the year. It goes far beyond the UK becasue it goes out in prime-time across Europe "

Ben Morel, senior VP and MD, NBA EMEA  

He tells Sportcal Insight: “It’s a key platform for our partners who activate around the game, and across the year. It goes far beyond the UK because it goes out in prime-time across Europe.”

In addition to Nike, which will be using the association to promote its Vapor line of apparel and shoes, the sponsors of the forthcoming London Game comprise Cisco, Gatorade, Marriott Rewards, Müller, SAP and Tissot.

Morel said that the interest in the Celtics-76ers clash is shown by the fact that the game at the 20,000-capacity O2 arena “sold out and we could have sold out multiple times.”

The uptake has not yet prompted the NBA to stage multiple games in the UK (the NFL now has four each autumn), and indeed, unlike previous years, teams did not visit Spain for preseason contests against domestic teams in 2017.

However, Morel names France, Germany, Italy and Spain as countries on the European continent that could host regular season games in the future.

He said: “We could do many more games, but logistically they’re not easy to pull off. There’s demand in other markets, and we’d love to do it in due course. We do try to make this [London Game] a Europe-level event even if there are not games there [on the continent].”

Other high-water marks in terms of promotional activity in the EMEA region across the season include the NBA Tip-Off in October, the Christmas Day games, the NBA All-Star Game in February and the NBA Finals in June, which Morel describes as “the big tent-pole events for our fans and corporate partners.”

Former Chelsea soccer star Didier Drogba tries his hand in a break at this year's London Game

The league sees the presence of so many European players in its teams as a unique selling point that enables it to connect with markets across the region.

Morel said: “One of our key specialities at the NBA, being a basketball league, is that we’re a global sport, and our players are coming from around the world. We have 64 European players, a majority of the foreign players in the league, and that’s a difference-maker.”

The NBA also supports the development of the sport, in the UK and beyond, through the Jr. NBA programme, establishing junior leagues in partnership with national federations and sponsors.

Morel said: “Basketball resonates. There’s a lot of people bouncing the ball around the world.”

The NBA’s broadcasting partners in Europe tend to be from the pay-television sector, including BT Sport in the UK, with regular season coverage centred around the ‘NBA Sundays’ offering in prime-time slots.

Morel does not believe that the league is missing out by not having a free-to-air presence in the UK (something the NFL enjoys through BBC highlights programming), stressing the importance of social media for connecting with a young audience.

In a first, BT Sport showed last season’s London Game between the Indiana Pacers and the Denver Nuggets for free on its website and Facebook, as well on a free-to-view TV channel, and there is a variety of dedicated content on the NBA UK Facebook and Twitter pages.

We don’t look at free-to-air versus pay-TV. We look at social media as free-to-view… We’re looking to try and capture as many fans as possible  

Morel said: “We don’t look at free-to-air versus pay-TV. We look at social media as free-to-view… We’re looking to try and capture as many fans as possible.

“In the UK, the NBA Facebook page has 1.4 million ‘likes’, which is 9 per cent up on last year. The following and the amount of consumption is great.”

He is also optimistic about the potential international impact of the NBA 2K eSports league, which launches next May, and virtual reality coverage, through a new partnership between US broadcaster Turner Sports and computer chip maker Intel, which will be available to the NBA’s global broadcast partners.

Morel says: “It’s about getting more fans excited about basketball, and getting the basketball in as many hands as possible.”