The Denver Nuggets basketball team last week published a video from a recent trip to Sombor, Serbia. Gathered beside a barn, people clapped to folk music as they greeted a tall man riding in on the back of a horse-drawn cart.
It was the quasi-official reception for Nuggets’ centre Nikola Jokić, who last week became the fourth foreign-born player to win the US National Basketball Association’s most valuable player award multiple times. This year, for the first time since the league has announced MVP finalists, all three contenders were born outside the US. The award has gone to an international player for each of the past four years.
The success of international basketball players is the result of a multi-decade effort by the NBA and other American professional sports leagues to export their products and build their fan bases as effectively as global football.
The NBA has invested in scouting and talent development around the globe and worked to expand local-language media rights from Asia to Africa to Europe and beyond. Rival US pro leagues, including the National Football League and Major League Baseball, have also stepped up efforts in the past year to expand their presence overseas, in some cases emulating the NBA’s model.
Mark Tatum, deputy commissioner and chief operating officer of the NBA, said the international business comprises about 10 per cent of league revenue that officials projected to reach $10bn for the 2021-2022 season.
The international share has more than tripled over the past 15 years. China represents the lion’s share of revenue outside of North America at about $400mn, a figure made public after a fallout from a 2019 tweet about Hong Kong by a team executive. The league does not break out revenue for other regions.
“It’s not just that these players are driving interest in their home markets, but they’re driving interest in the US,” Tatum said of the MVP finalists. “It’s the quality of the play, the style of play. When these international players are coming into the league they’re doing things that have never been done before.”
In the home territories of the three MVP finalists — Jokić of Serbia, Joel Embiid of Cameroon and the Philadelphia 76ers, and Giannis Antetokounmpo of Greece and the Milwaukee Bucks — regional subscriptions to the NBA League Pass streaming platform are up 17 per cent, 40 per cent, and 9 per cent year on year, respectively, according to Tatum.
Getting to this point is the result of decades of planning and exposure. This year’s crop of MVP finalists are a generation removed from the “Dream Team” of the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, where dominating play by greats such as Michael Jordan and Larry Bird introduced millions to NBA-style basketball.
Their fame eventually led to the establishment of various grassroots talent development programmes by the NBA and the international basketball federation, FIBA, including Basketball Without Borders.
Embiid would have been the first BWB alumnus to win the MVP trophy, according to Troy Justice, vice-president and head of international development for the NBA. He finished second in the overall award voting.
“When Embiid was in the programme, we wouldn’t have projected him to be an MVP contender,” Justice said, noting that “the best NBA players typically are late developers, not early developers”.
In Milwaukee, where Antetokounmpo secured the Bucks first championship title in a half-century last year and won back-to-back MVP trophies, executives speak of what they call “the Giannis effect” on a once-lagging franchise.
When current ownership acquired the Bucks franchise in 2014, “this was probably the most distressed asset in pro sports — or certainly the NBA — by every kind of metric”, said Peter Feigin, president of the team. With less than 1mn residents, Milwaukee is the third-smallest franchise market in the league, according to Sports Media Watch.
“What Giannis has done is reversed the funnel,” Feigin said. “Now there’s this opportunity to really be the global team, which we go after.” Antetokounmpo, whose parents emigrated to Greece from Nigeria before his birth, enjoys a following across regions and prompted the league last week to select the Bucks as one of two teams to play the first-ever NBA game in the Gulf, where they will face the Atlanta Hawks in an exhibition in October.
Also last week, MLB announced the formation of a long-term partnership with London to host professional baseball in the UK capital over the next five years. The efforts follow an earlier announcement by the NFL to extend overseas exhibition play into continental Europe.
Jim Small, senior vice-president of MLB International, said other US leagues consider the NBA the forerunner in creating audiences and talent development outside the home market, but comparing such efforts is not always clear-cut.
“With soccer or basketball, the concept is fairly simple: there’s a rectangle, and you get the ball in the goal or in the hoop. Baseball is a bit more nuanced,” he said, referring to its complex rules. In the UK market, the league measures roughly 5mn baseball fans, of which 1.3mn are considered “diehard”, according to Small.
For the NBA, its target growth market is Africa. It “is the youngest continent in the world, it’s got over a billion people, and it’s growing rapidly . . . which is why we’ve chosen it as the only place outside North America to launch a league”, said Tatum, referring to the Basketball Africa League currently in its second season.
Last year the NBA and private equity group Helios Fairfax Partners created NBA Africa, an investment vehicle with $1bn enterprise value aimed at developing more basketball content on and for the continent.