NBA growth continues in international markets

Over nearly a two-week stretch in January, the Detroit Pistons play four straight "home" games. First comes Utah, then New York, followed by Boston and Orlando.

It's a most unusual run of home games - since the one against the Knicks will be played in London.

The league calls itself the National Basketball Association, though the National part hardly tells the whole story. Maybe now more than ever, the NBA continues to look for growth on the international side of the game, a stretch that seems to have started when the group of U.S. players forever to be known as the Dream Team took center stage at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

Commissioner David Stern has talked for years about the prospects of more NBA games, possibly even teams, abroad. On Thursday, Stern announced his plan to step down in 2014, but it's certain that at least some - probably quite a bit - of his remaining tenure will be spent on laying more groundwork for the league to keep evolving internationally.

"Look, if you said 10 years ago that we were going to be playing regular-season games in Europe, I would have probably said, 'Not a chance,'" Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And last year they played two games over there. So anything's possible. The fan base continues to grow over there. It's cool to be part of a league that has become so global."

The numbers are eye-popping. The league's games are now shown in 215 countries and territories. The NBA says a total of 114 games have been played in 32 international cities across 17 foreign countries since 1988. Through social media, the league says it engages 320 million fans - that's more than the entire U.S. population - across the globe, and seems to put the NBA at the front when it comes to interest internationally among the four major U.S. leagues.

Stern says international potential is an area "of extreme importance" for the league, which is clear. The NBA has a newly opened office in Brazil, which will play host to the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. There's an NBA office in Mumbai now, for the growing market in India. And Stern said he wasn't even sure the league would be able to respond to all the requests from firms there to do business with the NBA.

"It's the reality of the game," Stern said. "There has been enormous improvement in the quality of the basketball around the world. In the London Olympics on 11 of the 12 teams, we had 59 current or former NBA players. That just speaks to the quality of the international competition. The quality being that international players make our game better by playing in the NBA, and then they return to play for the national teams."

Even before the league formally announced the Pistons-Knicks game in London - which will bring reigning gold medalists Tyson Chandler and Carmelo Anthony of the Knicks back to the city where they helped the U.S. win the Olympic title - fans in England were asking around about tickets.

"I think it is a good thing," Chandler said. "I think the game is slowly turning into a global game. I think it's good for everybody. It's good for the fans over there, it's good for the game, it's good for players as well, as long as it's done correctly."

The ideas for foreign growth have been a constant in the NBA, including Stern's oft-repeated hope of eventually adding a division of teams in Europe. (He has long said the idea is 10 years away, which has almost become a bit of a running joke since his prediction never changes even as the calendar flips from one year to the next.)

But in a global economy, and as the dominant force in a global game, reaching the billions of people who aren't exposed to elite-level basketball remains a top priority. That was even illustrated on Thursday, when Stern's decision to leave the commissioner's office was announced, but with the caveat that he will continue helping the NBA with certain issues - international ones in particular.

"At our urging we are going to also sit down with David, and have him continue to help us to be available to the partners or to the new commissioner after that time, to help us in particular on new projects or probably international projects," said Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. "We just think that his leadership will be important to our future."

Markets differ widely from one country to the next. Interest in certain players, apparently, does not.

Earlier this year, the NBA released the list of best-selling jerseys in international markets. In China, the top three were the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant, Chicago's Derrick Rose and Miami's LeBron James, respectively. In Europe, the order was the same. In Latin America, Bryant was again No. 1, followed by James and Rose.

Notice a trend there?

"Every time I go to another country, I'm always amazed by where the game's going," James said. "I think the interest in our game just keeps growing. You're talking about billions of people in this world, and a lot of people know the NBA."

There were seven preseason games abroad this season: Istanbul, Milan, Berlin, Barcelona, Shanghai, Beijing and Mexico City were the host cities. Each venue sold out, the NBA said.

Given the interest, and given the dollars that are out there, no one would be surprised to see more NBA games abroad - and regularly.

"I would never underestimate the creativity of the league," Spoelstra said.

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