Friday, January 4, 2013

NBA in Europe? David Stern Says Yes

David Stern sees the NBA's future in Europe. (

As NBA Commissioner, David Stern's job is to make decisions. Be it an act like voiding the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade or something much more influential like, say, regulating pre-game handshakes, his final word on the business of professional basketball in America has often led to backlash. Stern's perceived heavy-handedness has not been without positive results, though. During his tenure as commissioner — which began in 1984 and is set to end in 2014 — Stern has been a major player in growing the sport of basketball around the globe.

In an interview with ESPN Radio's Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo on Thursday, Stern does not see that growth ending with his retirement. From the man himself:

"I think so. I think [there will be] multiple NBA international teams. Twenty years from now? For sure. In Europe; no place else. In other places, I think you'll see the NBA name on leagues, and other places with marketing and basketball support but not part of the NBA as we now know it."

Basketball is already huge in Europe and, thanks to Stern's shrewd marketing of the NBA product and the league's foreign players, around the world. The sport is second in global popularity trailing only soccer, according to FIBA. It is a natural progression for the NBA to expand its official brand into overseas markets and executives would be ignoring a potential money-grab by refusing to expand Association-branded competition in other countries, especially with players such as Kobe Bryant already commanding large fan bases outside of the U.S.

This means that the NBA should be able to avoid the pitfalls suffered by NFL Europe, which appealed to a relatively small audience outside American borders and eventually shuttered its doors after several re-branding maneuvers and an attempt to use it as an avenue for young players to gain playing experience, a la the D-League.

However, there are several hurdles the NBA must clear before making Stern's prediction a reality, the least of which is finding willing ownership for a franchise based in Europe. Already filled with regional and national leagues, Europe is not a basketball-deficient continent and while the official NBA logo alone will help sell tickets, the logistics of competing with these other groups is not something the Association has never dealt with. As Kurt Helin of NBC's Pro Basketball Talk and Ball Don't Lie's Eric Freeman point out, adopting established clubs such as FC Barcelona and CSKA Moscow (the former home of players like Andrei Kirilenko and Alexey Shved) to become the NBA's official branches in Europe is the most logical move as it requires fewer start-up strategies, with the clubs already having fan bases and branded identities.

Scheduling these clubs — and there would have to be several to justify a separate division in Europe — to play against existing NBA teams would be the tough part. International travel would necessitate long road trips for teams to play each overseas opponent in a single go, rather than setting up back-to-backs beginning on one side of Atlantic Ocean and ending on the other (obviously).

Freeman also notes that racial tension is significantly higher in Europe, even in sports like soccer, and that recent NBA expansion teams in Vancouver, Toronto and Charlotte have all struggled to gain footholds among local audiences, prompting one move (to Memphis, for the Grizzlies) and a continued cold shoulder from American-born players skittish to play outside of their homeland's borders.

In the interview, Stern insists the league he has overseen for the better part of 30 years is "poised for global growth" and that he is "very pleased with the prospects for growth," even going as far as to offer his services to travel internationally and negotiate on the league's behalf. As an aside, he also mentions the NBA's return to Seattle, saying he "hope[s] there will be" a franchise there in the near future, a direct contradiction of his own 2007 statement that "if the team moves, there's not going to be another team."

The growth of basketball under Stern's watch is undeniable, whether it be that of his own league or the sport as a whole, and it looks like his precedents will be the map the NBA follows for the foreseeable future. There seems to be no way around it at this point, so the question is not if the NBA will have teams in other countries but if the plan to expand to Europe will work as a sustainable endeavor.

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