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A Global game: The NBA’s international evolution

I am a first-year BIG student and joined Tra i Leoni as a sports writer. I am passionate about sports, particularly basketball, and have a keen interest in the relationship between sports and politics.

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The National Basketball Association (NBA) rakes in on average 8 billion U.S. dollars yearly, making it the 3rd most profitable sports league in the world. Interestingly enough, this figure is not restricted to the United States, as the NBA’s revenue comes from a variety of sources across the globe, covering several continents all of which have a significant impact on the game of basketball and how it operates at the highest level.  

Since the 1990s, basketball has increasingly become a global sport, with the 1992 U.S.A. Olympic team taking an enormous step in its globalization process. In fact, nicknamed the “Dream Team”, it was the first Olympic basketball team to be composed of professional athletes from the NBA, consisting of iconic players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. With sports channels around the world broadcasting the Barcelona Olympics, fans tuned in to watch their favorite sports put on show. Little by little, more viewers began to get intrigued by the basketball tournament; for many, it was the first time seeing professionals competing. The viewership numbers rose to a record level, and thus, the global phenomenon was born. Analysts and reporters often use the saying “Springfield, Massachusetts is basketball’s birthplace, but Barcelona is where the modern game was born.”  

Ever since, the NBA has expanded to various countries, with international players being important contributors to this process. Although the first NBA game in China was played in 1979, the real advancement came in 2002. Yao Ming, a 2.29 meters tall Chinese citizen and the Houston Rockets’ #1 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft, was a crucial player for the development of the league’s relationship with China. The notoriously difficult political relationship between the United States and China translated into sports as the government had been reluctant to broadcast NBA games. However, Ming’s tenure as a player from the Rockets, boosted fan bases and China began to see the positive influence such a player could have, both domestically and abroad. This led to an increase in media coverage and viewership ratings, allowing for the relationship between the two countries to be mostly fruitful. Although the NBA and China have had a few bumps in the road to this day, there have been increasing brand partnerships as well as player tours, ultimately establishing a strong business-oriented relationship.  

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With China being a key target in the NBA’s globalization strategy, the first games played outside of the United States were in fact in Beijing and Shanghai. Nonetheless, having “conquered” China as a basketball country, the NBA began scheduling games in international cities such as London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and more. In 2013, these were coined as “the NBA Global Games”, and have since become a yearly occurrence, driving the NBA name and business deeper into sports cultures around the globe. In fact, in 2015, the Boston Celtics, one of the most historic and famed franchises, came to play an exhibition game versus Olimpia Milano, packing the stadium with Italian basketball fans who had long anticipated to watch the greatest and most talented players face arguably the strongest Italian basketball franchise of the 21st century.  

Most credit is given to David Stern, the former NBA commissioner, for having initiated this international expansion and pushing for it to continue. Yet it was Adam Silver who took over the role of commissioner in 2014, and picked up where Stern left off. By introducing the BAL (Basketball Africa League) in 2019, Silver and the NBA were able to not only tick the box of 12 different African countries, but create a fully functioning league that hosts talented professionals from a number of countries outside of Africa as well.  

As we see basketball growing in every corner of the world, we can observe this same phenomenon occurring here in Bocconi. The new sports center has launched a new era in Bocconi Sports, having an official home arena to play professional as well as intramural games in. Italian NBA player Danilo Gallinari was present at the inauguration of the sports center, showcasing how connected the league can be to international fans, even at the Italian university level. Both the NBA’s and the game of basketball’s culture has reached Bocconi and engrained itself into the sports community at the university, further improving the perception of the game from an Italian perspective.  

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NBA followers and fans have seen first-hand in recent years how much can be accomplished when a plan is put in action, reaching people all around the world and taking basketball, as a sport and as a business, to new heights. The league’s total revenue has constantly increased since the late 90s (with the exclusion of 2020, presumably due to the pandemic), and is projected to keep doing so. By expanding across all 7 continents, a single American league has been able to make the sport of Basketball an exciting, diverse, inclusive experience, and a truly global game.  

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I am a first-year BIG student and joined Tra i Leoni as a sports writer. I am passionate about sports, particularly basketball, and have a keen interest in the relationship between sports and politics.

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